Home, home on the range | AspenTimes.com

Home, home on the range

Toai Nolan, a former Army sharpshooter, laughs while being heckled by fellow vets after one of his few misses at the Basalt Gun Range on April 10, 2002.. Nolan, from Oregon, was part of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Jacob N. Ware photo.

Toai Nolan earned the nickname “dead eye” from the other disabled military veterans at the Christine Shooting Range with good reason yesterday.

Nolan rarely missed dozens of chances to blast clay pigeons even though Wednesday was the first time he had picked up a shotgun. Granted, he had the advantage of being a former sharpshooter in the U.S. Army, but, still, he had never fired a shotgun before.

Nolan is visiting the Roaring Fork Valley this week with hundreds of participants in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The vets have been skiing at Snowmass, fishing at the Roaring Fork Club, horse riding at Aspen Equestrian Estates and target shooting at the Colorado Division of Wildlife range in Basalt.

Nolan said this is the third year he has participated in the winter sports program. He said there was no way he was going to allow a spinal cord injury to prevent him from taking part in outdoor activities.

“What I see is a lot of people sitting around after their injury,” he said. Not him, nor the other vets participating in the program.

A motorcycle accident ended his military career and nearly ended his life on April 14, 1995. Nolan, of Bend, Ore., said he was riding a motorcycle for the first time when he missed a 90-degree curve and had a head-on crash with the only tree in a field. He crushed part of his spinal cord and now uses a wheelchair.

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Disabled or not, it doesn’t affect his aim. Nolan said he had to adjust to leading his target a bit more than he did with a rifle as an Army sniper, but he caught on fast. In a half-hour stretch, he seemed to hit about 90 percent of the airborne targets flung out at the skeet range. The other disabled veterans in his group quickly named him “dead eye.”

Bill Cody wasn’t a bad shot himself, but what do you expect with a name like that. He is participating in his first winter sports program, but it definitely won’t be his last. He has indulged in skiing, fishing, horseback riding and target shooting.

“The value is being able to experience things you otherwise might not do again,” said Cody, of Warner Robins, Ga. He said he enjoys being around folks “who are in the same situation” as him.

Cody, who served in the Navy from 1976 to 1981, injured his spinal cord when he flipped a tractor as a civilian about 10 years ago.

The vets at the shooting range are being assisted this week by about 40 volunteers from the Roaring Fork Valley Sportsmen’s Association. They contributed time, guns and targets while the veterans paid for the ammo.

While some vets were blasting away with shotguns on the skeet range, others were target practicing with handguns. Law enforcement officers from Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties, as well as Basalt, Aspen, Snowmass Village and other jurisdictions assisted with handgun practice.

Volunteer John Swanson said he contacted officials at the Grand Junction Veterans’ Administration Medical Center when it was announced that the winter sports program would be held in Snowmass Village this year, and invited them to target shoot as one of their activities. The Grand Junction facility is hosting this year’s event.

Swanson said it has been rewarding for him to volunteer his time during a weekday.

“We give up a little bit of our time. A lot of them have given up a hell of a lot more for us,” he said.

Sportsmen’s Association president Dana Strong said he has been inspired by the willingness of the veterans to attempt activities despite their challenges. Some of the target shooters had only one arm. Others had limited sight.

Seeing what they were willing to try and accomplish was nothing short of “remarkable,” according to Strong.

“They may enjoy it, but for us it’s uplifting,” he said.