“I don’t know why I’m motivated,” said Freedom Award recipient Army Sgt. Kristian “Deno” Cedeño. The infantryman suffered multiple life-changing injuries, including the amputation of his right leg, when he took a direct hit from an improvised explosive device while on a foot patrol in Afghanistan in 2012. He racked up a laundry list of shattered and dislocated bones, along with vast muscle and artery damage.
To say he was on death’s door would understate the seriousness of his injuries. In any other war in our nation’s history, these wounds would likely have sealed a soldier’s fate.
The day he received his prosthetic device, he was up and walking around for eight straight hours. When it came to his recovery, Cedeño made a habit of pushing boundaries and breaking records.
Eight short months after his injuries, he became one of the nearly 400 military veterans to attend the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, co-sponsored by DAV and the VA, in Snowmass Village, Colo. For 27 years, this clinic has given injured and ill military veterans the chance to challenge their physical and mental strength.
And it was there that Cedeño, a one-time avid snowboarder, made unthinkable strides out on the slopes.
“Is it because someone tried to decommission me?” Cedeño pondered. “Because I owe it to my family and friends? Because I owe it to my prosthesist who got me back on my feet? Because I owe it to my friends who pieced me back together?”
The Queens, N.Y., native remains on active duty, stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., with his wife, Gwen.
“My family fueled me. My wife fueled me. And I was given a second chance. So why slow down?” Cedeño said. “I owe it to the men and women on my left and right who gave me strength when I didn’t have it. So how dare I put that to waste?”
It’s a sentiment that inspired his fellow participants and earned Cedeño the event’s top honor when he was named the DAV Freedom Award recipient. The same spirit runs deep among many others at the clinic.
“I felt like a deserter,” said Army veteran Pam Kelly, speaking about her career-ending injuries. “I didn’t get to go with my unit.”
After 17 years in the Army, Kelly was injured in July 2002 in a training accident leading up to her unit’s deployment to Iraq. She suffered damage to her spine and her shoulders, uses a wheelchair and still battles the emotional challenges.
“I’m still new to trying to get out and do things, so these types of sport activities are something I just love to do,” said Kelly. “The whole week out here is like being back out in the field. It’s just gung-ho and telling everybody, ‘Let’s go; you can do it.’ It’s amazing.”
National Adjutant Marc Burgess, who visited the clinic for his fourth year, agrees the benefits of this event are unparalleled. For returning participants, the clinic is a chance to reconnect with fellow veterans and build on the successes.
“Jarod ‘Superman’ Behee generally comes back year after year, and every year he has a brighter outlook on life,” said Burgess, referring to an Army veteran and past participant who was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq. “Since coming to the clinic, he has become a DAV member and an active member of our community. I believe this clinic has truly changed his life. In fact, he only missed the clinic this year because of his own wedding. I think that’s a testament to how far he has come since being injured.”
For many new veterans, it’s about breaking through their shells and rediscovering their own strengths and abilities.
This was the first clinic for Marshall Abbott, a Marine veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury and spent years in bed, being told about the things he would no longer be able to do. But on the mountain, he put all the “can’t” behind him.
“Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m not a Marine anymore, and I’m still going to live life,” said Abbott. “I don’t want anybody to tell me what I can’t do. I want them to say, ‘What do you want to do and how can we assist you?’ And that’s what DAV and the VA have done here this week.”
Few other annual events bring together such a wide array of people linked by the commonality of their injuries and illnesses. Few other places host so many individuals who have scraped rock bottom, only to surge back toward the top, stronger than before. And certainly few other programs have a proven record of completely transforming the lives and mentalities of veterans as does the Winter Sports Clinic.