By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., March 26, 2012 – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki opened the 26th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here last night, challenging more than 400 participants to draw on the qualities they demonstrated in uniform to live life to its fullest.
"The physical effort, sheer determination, courage and self-confidence that characterized your service in uniform came from deep within you," the former Army chief of staff told the group, which includes nine active-duty service members and 94 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Well, those are the very attributes that will carry you through this week here in Colorado," he said. "And more importantly, it is what will get you back into living life."
The winter sports clinic, jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
As the veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, wheelchair fencing, sled hockey, snowmobiling, and sled hockey during a six-day program, many discover a whole new world of opportunity.
"Here on the mountain, you are going to do things you never thought possible," Shinseki told the participants. "This week is about much more than learning to use adaptive skis or snowboards or learning to play sled hockey. It is not about conquering this mountain. … It is about conquering ourselves," he said, quoting Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Mount Everest.
Shinseki, a disabled veteran who lost part of his right foot in Vietnam, praised the strides the veterans have made in their recuperation and urged them to continue striving to live life to its fullest.
"You may have been injured, but life isn’t over. There is still a lot of living to do for all of us," he said. "It will be different, no doubt. And you are going to have to work hard to improve functionality. But that is the challenge and the triumph, every day: to keep on living while you are living."
Donald Samuels, national commander for the Disabled American Veterans and a first-timer at the clinic, recognized the challenge participants will face as they face "a lot of unknowns" in a new setting.
"You have all faced down challenges in your service to our country, and I am urging you to rekindle your fighting spirit and do the same with the hurdles you may face here this week," he said.
As they do so, Samuels reminded them, they’ll have their fellow veterans encouraging them and giving them the boost they may need to succeed.
"Let this week be about you and your own personal goals and ambitions," he said. "Make it part of your healing process to revitalize your fighting spirit, your strength and your own independence. This time and this place is all about the incredible things you can accomplish."
This year’s clinic includes 135 other first-time participants.
Among them is former Marine Corps Sgt. Arthur Lee, who suffered a severe spinal cord injury in Afghanistan in 2003 after the vehicle in front of his hit an improvised explosive device so powerful that it flipped Lee’s 5-ton truck over.
After two years of prodding by his caregivers at the VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., Lee relented, and already is fired up about the reception he and the other veterans here have received here.
"It’s enormous," he said, sitting in Snowmass Village enjoying the opening-day "Taste of Snowmass" feast hosted by local restaurants to welcome the veterans. "I can tell this is going to be a good experience."
Shinseki paid tribute during the opening ceremonies to the corporate sponsors, donors and some 1,000 volunteers who make the clinic a success.
Nobody had to twist Nick Infanti’s arm to get him to his first winter sports clinic.
A former Marine who suffered a traumatic brain injury two years ago during an IED attack in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, he was looking forward to putting his snowboarding skills to the test on Snowmass Mountain.
"I came here for the experience. They say this is pretty exciting," he said, and he rattled off the list of other activities he plans to try: snowmobiling, scuba diving and marksmanship, among them.
Former Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Woods, another first-timer, shared Infanti’s excitement about an action-packed week. Woods served as an operations specialist from 2001 to 2005, but left the Navy with multiple sclerosis and balance issues that force him to use a walker or wheelchair to maneuver.
But over the next week, Woods said, his physical challenges will be the last thing on his mind as he skis, snowmobiles, tries out kayaking and visits the hot springs.
"This breathes life into you to keep you going and keep you motivated," he said. "Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean life is over…. And if there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I do not give up."
Eric K. Shinseki
Department of Veterans Affairs
Disabled American Veterans
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki chats with participants in the 26th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., during opening ceremonies March 25, 2012. VA photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image