Miracles on a mountainside

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Clinton Hale with DAV National Commander Moses A. McIntosh Jr. at the 2016 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

Clinton Hale, a DAV life member, was just 38 years old but had mountains of hurdles ahead of him in 1987. The Air Force veteran was already carrying shrapnel in his leg from service in Vietnam when he was severely injured during an operation to seize an enemy airfield while serving as a combat air controller in Grenada.

While parachuting, he struck a piece of runway equipment that resulted in a spinal cord injury so severe that doctors told him he’d never walk again. Yet this year in Snowmass, Colo., with a little help from his wife, Eva, and daughter Gabrielle, he walked on stage at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and led 324 of his fellow veterans in the Pledge of Allegiance at opening ceremonies.

At that moment, Hale, and the event itself, which is co-sponsored by DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs, marked 30 consecutive years of creating “miracles on a mountainside.”

Over three decades, Hale and thousands of other veterans, have been given a transformative opportunity to redefine the limitations of the most profoundly disabling injuries a veteran can endure. Attendance at the event, along with recreational therapy from the Department of Veterans Affairs, helped Hale face the social stigma that came with his injury. Being around his fellow veterans has given him a sense of belonging.

2016_WSC_2“That’s what’s so great about the Winter Sports Clinic. It’s gotten better every year in terms of the quality of the equipment, but throughout its inception it has created a sense of community. There are so many people, and they become more of an extended family than just a bunch of friends,” said Hale.

Over the years, the event has grown and evolved. The archaic kayak-like Aroura that Hale began on and the buckets that others used as sit-skis in the ’80s are now state-of-the-art bi- and mono-skis that can be adjusted on site at the clinic to accommodate the specific needs of participants. Much of the equipment, including the semitrailer that carries it and serves as a prosthetics workshop, has been donated over the years by DAV and the DAV Charitable Service Trust.

“We strive to make this the best rehabilitative event in the world. We want veterans to achieve their highest possible potential, and that’s a little bit different for everyone who attends,” said Teresa Parks, the VA director for the event. “If a veteran can stand, even if he or she has a severe injury, we have adaptive equipment that can hold them up. If they want to ski, we have equipment for them. If they want to snowboard, we can accommodate that. The purpose of the event is to remove any obstacle that stands in their way.”

Veterans like Hale, who have attended multiple events, continue to rehabilitate at the clinic but also take on roles as mentors who understand the path that lies ahead for veterans of subsequent generations.

“What I really like is meeting the new guys and gals, to let them know they’re going to be all right, especially the newly injured. They’re wondering what life’s going to be like for them,” said Hale. “I enjoy mentoring them, letting them know it’s going to be just fine, telling them they’re just at the apprentice level. Wait until they’re at the master’s level; they’ll see things much differently.”

DAV’s involvement in the event dates back to its inspiration. Dick Wilson, a former DAV Communications Director and severely injured veteran who served in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, was a pioneer in the sport and an encouraging figure for Sandy Trombetta, the VA recreational therapist who established the event. Within a few short years, DAV became the clinic’s co-sponsor and has been a partner ever since.

The event has grown well beyond nordic and alpine skiing. Catering to the most profoundly injured veterans—those who face spinal cord injuries, brain trauma, blindness, neurological disabilities and amputations—it provides rock climbing, scuba diving, sled hockey, curling, snowmobiling, wheelchair selfdefense, goal ball for the visually impaired, and a wide range of other activities. It also features classes and group sessions that connect veterans with resources and a sense of community.

2016_WSC_6“The goal of the clinic is to plant a seed. We want the impact of this event to last a lifetime. We’re introducing veterans to opportunities for continued growth and giving them a chance to prove to themselves that their injuries do not have to limit their quality of life,” said John Kleindienst, DAV’s National Director of Voluntary Services.

DAV National Commander Moses A. McIntosh Jr. participated in many events, including sit-skiing and sled hockey. “It is marvelous to me to have the opportunity to connect with the people and experience the joy and hope they encounter through this event,” he said. “This may have been the highlight of my term as National Commander, and I’m honored
and humbled to see the changes we make in the lives of those who attend.”

“Seeing the profound impact this clinic has had on so many thousands of veterans and their family members over the years has been a great honor for DAV,” said Barry Jesinoski, National Headquarters Executive Director. “We certainly hope to be a part of this for many more years—and many more veterans—to come.”