Eighteen months ago, Army Specialist Roberto Cruz was shot by a sniper in Iraq. Four seconds later he dropped, paralyzed. On the way to his spinal cord, the bullet destroyed the main artery in his left arm, collapsed his lung and fractured a rib. Doctors at FOB Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, saved the arm, which was the good news. When he got to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., however, Cruz learned that he would be paralyzed for life and was never going to walk again.
After his discharge, he was transferred from Walter Reed to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Florida. "The therapists there were so great, Cruz said. "They got me up. They got me walking again. Cruz walks short distances with the help of a cane.
Now Cruz is preparing to ski!
April 1-6, Cruz will join more than 400 disabled military veterans at the 21st National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo. (near Aspen). (Check out the short film Beyond Iraq for a preview of the event.) The Clinic is a rehabilitative clinic that provides disabled veterans with opportunities for self-development and challenge through sports and leisure activities. At the Clinic, all participants are able to develop winter sports skills and take part in a variety of adaptive workshops, which demonstrate that having a physical or visual disability need not be an obstacle to an active, rewarding life.
All participants will ski — adaptive skiing with mono-skis and bi-skis (seated in a fiberglass shell which is mounted on one or two skis) and instruction in adaptive Alpine (downhill) and Nordic (cross-country) skiing for stand-up skiers, including the visually impaired. Participants can also take part in a large variety of alternate activities including scuba diving, sled hockey, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, rock climbing, trap shooting, curling, fencing, golf, Snow Cat/Gondola Rides and a trip to the Hot Springs; plus educational and instructional workshops on self-defense (taught by Secret Service personnel) and other stimulating topics.
This year nearly 100 newly injured military personnel from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are registered participate — many for the first time.
Ryan Coffield, who is coming to Colo. from Fayetteville, Ark., is excited to see the Rocky Mountains.
"I've never had the opportunity to get out there before, said Coffield. Coffield's infantry unit was deployed to Iraq in January 2005. In October 2005, Coffield was checking for contraband when one of the drivers was fired at by a nearby sniper. Coffield, a certified sniper himself, was sent to the rooftops to locate the shooter, but before he could do so, he was shot in the neck. The bullet broke through his vertebrae, leaving him a quadriplegic, and requiring the insertion of two titanium plates and three steel rods in his neck. The steel and titanium are strong, but it is undoubtedly Coffield's mental strength and positive attitude that keep him going.
Coffield has worked hard in his physical therapy, learning to walk again, and now is looking forward to learning to snowboard.
"I've never really done it before, so we'll see how it goes, he said.
Maybe Coffield will get some tips from Alan Lewis of Milwaukee, Wis. Lewis is a bilateral below the knee amputee. He was injured in Baghdad by a landmine on July 16, 2003 where his infantry unit had been clearing buildings and trenches to secure the city. This April will be the fourth visit to the Clinic for Lewis.
"My first Clinic was a lot of fun, trying out my skills with skiing. The next year I tried snowboarding, which was much easier on my legs, Lewis recalled. "Now, I can't wait to get on the slopes and get some snowboarding in before the end of the ski season.[pagebreak]
Believing that the event would only be a "fun trip and a way to get his mind off of things, Lewis found something he didn''t expect.
"There was a brotherhood at this event, he remembers. "After my injury I was missing my buddies, my unit. They were still fighting and training and I felt like I lost that brotherhood and thought I would never reclaim that. I was wrong. I found out that at the Clinic, although in this brotherhood we're not the same age, fight the same enemy, or even listen to the same music, we still share that camaraderie of being veterans.
That brotherhood crosses generational lines. The newest participants, coming from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be joining in activities with veterans who served combat in Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Lebanon and in the European and Southeast Asian theatres of WWII.
Joseph Hineman of Des Moines, Iowa is one of six WWII combat veterans scheduled to attend this year's Clinic. At age 20, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for three years in the 99th Infantry Division. In October 1944, he arrived in Germany.
Reflecting, Hineman said, "I arrived before the Battle of the Bulge began and my unit was involved. It was absolutely horrific. Adding to the terror of battle, the cold was absolutely numbing. I was lucky to have survived.
Several months after the siege ended, Hineman and a fellow soldier found themselves under attack when their infantry unit tried to capture the bridge at Ramagan over the Rhine River.
"I was hit by shrapnel from a German mortar that burst in the trees. I got hit in the left thigh and right calf, he recalled.
Medical care was administered but the shrapnel still caused a severe infection. The infection grew worse and Hineman's life was in grave danger. In order to save him, in March 1945 doctors in Paris amputated his left leg above the knee. He was honorably discharged the following year.
At 84 years of age, Hineman will be among the oldest participants at the Clinic. Being among the oldest has earned him distinctive opportunities. At past Clinics, he has enjoyed meeting the newly injured men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said, "The Clinic is a great way to socialize with military peers from various backgrounds. We share a generational bond, because even though I'm much older, I can identify with them psychologically and physiologically because of our similar injuries.
Hineman has attended the Clinic for more than ten years. His achievements in life and at the Clinic are truly an inspiration to those who think that age, injury or life's uncertainties could bebarriers to greatness.
The Clinic's founder and director, Sandy Trombetta, a recreation therapist at the Grand Junction VA medical center explains, "The Clinic offers these veterans so many benefits, especially for those coming up for the first time. They gain peer interaction, meeting men and women from past conflicts, and realize that they are part of a sacred fraternity. They witness what can be achieved from people like them with similar disabilities. They receive mentoring from others who have been there before them who give them insights on adapting and the 'tricks of the trade' so to speak. They realize that they are not alone, see other who are thriving despite unimaginable barriers and leave knowing that anything is possible, if they but only dare to dream. The Winter Sports Clinic not only makes people dream but also fulfills them.
And so they go, all of these amazing veterans, to illustrate why this Clinic is known as "Miracles on a Mountainside. They will challenge themselves mentally and physically, they will grow and bond, and they will prove that disability does not equal disabled — it just means they do things a bit differently.