Miracles on a Mountainside
Five years ago, Staff Sergeant Patrick Zeigler’s life was dramatically altered when he was wounded in service to our country, but not in a way anyone could have foreseen. On November 5, 2009, just home from his second deployment to Iraq, Zeigler was sitting in the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center when a gunman opened fire in the building. Ziegler was shot once in the head, and then, as he tried to escape, he was shot three more times, in the shoulder, arm and hip. Besides him, 32 other people were wounded and 13 others were killed. For so many people, in so many ways, life changed forever in those brief moments.
Likewise, for participants at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, it is in those brief moments that they find their life paths dramatically altered. From a targeted gunshot wound to a wrong step on an improvised explosive device, a random car accident to a doctor’s devastating diagnosis, these seconds and minutes become pivotal points in time, sending veterans and their families in new directions.
This clinic, sponsored by DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs, becomes a critical stop along the way for thousands of those injured and ill men and women. It is a place to rediscover abilities, regain strength and courage and test the limits of what they believe to be possible.
“I think the most important thing is to create some sort of normalcy in people’s lives and create that sense of accomplishment that they haven’t had in a long time,” Zeigler explained. “For me, that’s really what this is about—to be able to achieve success at something I haven’t been able to do since being injured.”
Of course, there are setbacks large and small for every disabled veteran working to achieve that normalcy. Air Force veteran Tonjua “TJ” Stewart knows that all too well. This first-year clinic attendee was on the fast track to making chief master sergeant when she was shocked with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Following a life-saving surgery, she continued to pursue her goals, undeterred. But then, not once, not twice, but three times more, Stewart was given the dreadful diagnosis of cancer. All three times, tumors had developed in her brain, requiring risky surgery.
Still, nothing could hold her back, and nothing could hold her back at the clinic.
Similarly, if you tell 19-year Navy veteran Laurie Wood she can’t do something, prepare to be proven wrong. In April 2012, her life changed in the blink of an eye when she suffered a spinal cord injury during a work training exercise. Wood pushed the boundaries of her recovery, inspiring others with her determination and sense of humor.
“The harsher the conditions, the stronger the woman. I’m only helpless and vulnerable when my nail polish is wet,” she joked.
Adaptive sports fueled Wood’s rehabilitation. “It sounds cliché, but adaptive sports saved my life,” said Wood, who dominated the clinic’s sled hockey and rock-climbing events. “I really thought I’d never be able to play hockey or be active again. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back on the ice.”
Army veteran Jeff Hemenger shares that sentiment. Another clinic first-timer, he suffered severe injuries in a Humvee crash while on a raid in Baghdad. Severe injuries led him to endure four years of limb-salvage therapy while doctors tried to save his foot before it was amputated in 2011.
Hemenger is now a marathon runner and enjoys the full array of winter sports offered at the clinic. “I wanted to prove to everyone—my family and friends and to the doctors who said I’d never be able to walk again—that not only would I walk again, but I would run and do everything I could, and more, before my injuries.”
For Hemenger, the clinic is a unique therapy. “I look forward to the stress relief the clinic brings when I’m flying down the mountain,” said Hemenger. “I’m really thinking of nothing else in my mind because it’s just you, the mountain and the moment right there.”
Hemenger said the intangible aspects of the clinic are equally important. “Just seeing fellow veterans enjoy themselves and seeing their faces light up is very rewarding,” he said. “An event like this can change your life.”
The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic is a natural extension of DAV’s mission. Since World War II, every branch and service era has come to the clinic to share this experience.
“It’s veterans helping other veterans, leaning on each other and overcoming obstacles, side by side,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess, who visited with participants. “You can see the progress in individuals from year to year, and even from day to day at the clinic. It’s a true inspiration.”
Click here to see more photos from the winter sports clinic.