Pushing past obstacles for nearly 30 years
Army nurse Christine “Chris” Treiber had just arrived at the hospital to start her last shift as a major. She was looking forward to pinning on lieutenant colonel the following day and continuing her successful military career of nearly 20 years.
But that all changed in the blink of an eye when she suffered a brain aneurysm and was not expected to live, let alone continue her career. The miraculous survival was just the beginning. Life as she knew it drastically changed in an instant as the aneurysm caused visual, physical and cognitive impairments.
Treiber’s fellow veterans and participants at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic understand this abrupt realization all too well. Whether it’s a bullet wound sustained in battle, a car accident while home on leave or an unexpected diagnosis from the doctor, the men and women who descend upon the mountains in Snowmass have seen their lives unexpectedly change. And they have refused to let an illness or injury stop them.
Treiber, a DAV life member, is no different. Despite the devastating effects of the aneurysm, she was determined to stay active as she adjusted to her “new normal.” The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic seemed like the perfect outlet to challenge herself. In 1995, she took the plunge and signed up. She has attended almost every clinic since then and continues topush herself year after year.
“When you have an impairment, it can seem like everything is slower—your movement, thoughts and day-to-day living,” explained Treiber. “But when you get out on the mountain, the limitations are gone.
Everybody is equal. Even if you are a beginner, you canfly down that bunny slope, and you’re a winner.”
Co-hosted by DAV and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the clinic has served as a world-leader in adaptive sports for 29 years.
While the event has proven instrumental in helping veterans begin their road to recovery, it also has served as a training ground for elite athletes. More than 20 Paralympians participated in the 2015 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. One of those athletes is Joel Hunt.
When Hunt joined the Army in 1998, he planned on serving his country for 20 years, but that all changed during a deployment to Iraq. A roadside blast left him with a severe traumatic brain injury.
After returning home, Hunt struggled to adapt. He needed to rely on his parents as caregivers because of constant blackouts, double vision and bouts of dizziness. The lack of control and feeling in his legs confined him to a wheelchair.
He was angry and depressed, but his parents encouraged him to get out of the house and get active again. One sport they suggested he try was skiing. Hunt was apprehensive at first, self-conscious about his abilities. Because of his post-traumatic stress disorder, he was also anxious about being around a large group of people he had never met. However, he quickly fell in love with the sport, and when he decided to take his training to the next level, the clinic played a major role in his development as a world-class athlete.
By the end of the 2009-10 season, Hunt was nationally ranked in the top 10 of adaptive skiers. Today, he is ranked third nationally and 34th in the world. He competed in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games and earned a silver medal in slalom at the Canadian Nationals. He also qualified for the World Cup.
“I hope to inspire others with disabilities by showing them that if a regular guy like me can make it, anybody can,” said Hunt. “It’s my hope that by setting the example, others will realize that tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
Taking on more than 11,000 feet of elevation on skis and snowboards wasn’t the only daunting activity participants overcame. Veterans tried their hand at scuba diving, snowmobiling, curling, sled hockey and rock climbing. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald joined participants on a quest to the top ofthe rock-climbing wall.
“Through sports and other forms of recreation therapy, we can greatly improve the quality of life for many of our nation’s heroes,” said McDonald.
DAV National Commander Ron Hope understands the importance of recreation therapy and adaptive sports. Hope, who lost an arm in Vietnam, is no stranger to the clinic.He participated twice before coming to Snowmass in his role as DAV’s top line officer.
“This event teaches some of our most profoundly wounded veterans to challenge themselves and to overcome the obstacles they face as a result of their service to our nation,” said Hope. “Participants are able to rediscover abilities and opportunities that they may have thought were taken from them when they were hurt.”
Captain Ed “Flip” Klein had been an avid skier and snowboarder before his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan where he lost both legs, his right arm and several fingers on his left hand. The Army Ranger didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to get back on the slopes.
“My interest in skiing and winter sports is that really, of all the things I can’t do anymore and all the things you have to find a new normal for, skiing is one of the few things that kind of feels the same,” said Klein, a first-time clinic participant. “I don’t feel disabled on the mountain, so I pursue events like this to feel some of the same freedoms that I was familiar with before.”
Navy veterans Jon and Eileen Vasquez were also attending the clinic for the first time. Jon Vasquez sustained a traumatic brain injury, and Eileen Vasquez has service-connected visual impairments. The couple banded together with fellow participants to overcome the mountain.
“It’s great to get out there with other veterans. We’re all here to help each other,” said Jon Vasquez. More than 360 men and women attended this year’s clinic, including participants who served in World War II, Operation Enduring Freedom and every era in between.More than 150 first-time participants joined the long list of participants who make the clinic an annual event.
For longtime participant Treiber, the clinic is the highlight of her year. “When I return from the clinic, I’m ready for anything that comes my way. When you leave Snowmass, no matter what you’ve done, as long as you tried, you have excelled,” said Treiber. “Being at the clinic makes me feel like I can tackle anything.”
Treiber’s determination and resilience can be seen in each and every veteran at Snowmass, where men and women rediscover abilities, regain strength and courage and test the limits of what they believe to be possible.