‘Miracles on the mountainside’: National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic returns to Snowmass
When David Riley awoke in a hospital bed after a monthlong coma, the U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer sunk to a level of despair he never knew possible.
“I thought, ‘This is not how I want to live my life. This is not me,’” Riley recalled. “I saw a long life ahead of everyone having to take care of me.”
Upon contracting a rare bacterium in the waters off the coast of Alabama, Riley suffered a form of septic shock.
While unconscious, his wife, Yvonne, consented doctors to amputate her husband’s arms and legs so he could survive.
“I didn’t see a path ahead,” Riley said of losing his four limbs as well as some internal organs.
“(Doctors) were scared of me. I really didn’t see (other quad-amputees) out there,” he said. “I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get up off my back.”
Riley, who served in the Army prior to the Coast Guard, medically retired from the armed forces in 1997.
Determined to make the most of his situation, Riley went on to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in computer science and start his own company in technical services.
But with time, the daily pain and stares started to take a more serious toll.
“Over the space of about eight years, the looks (from people) start wearing on you. I crashed pretty hard in 2008 with a severe depression.
“That’s when I really needed a redirection in my life. I didn’t really feel I had a purpose anymore,” Riley said. “And that’s really what the Disabled American Veterans gave me: something larger than myself to represent.”
Riley describes his first experience with the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, which ends its 17th annual event today in Snowmass, as nothing short of “life-changing.”
The winter sports clinic, hosted by both the Disabled American Veterans organization and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, is the largest rehabilitative program of its kind in the world.
By providing disabled veterans the opportunity to participate in several adaptive sports and activities — including kayaking, curling, fly-fishing, bowling, scuba diving, hockey, rock climbing, skiing, snowshoeing and sledding — the clinic challenges and empowers veterans to reach new limits, Riley said.
“The only limits we have as disabled veterans are the ones we put on ourselves,” Riley said. “But limits are made to be broken.”
Steven Wilson, a Disabled American Veterans spokesman, said, “That’s really what this clinic does.”
“Imagine being deployed overseas and suffering a life-changing injury, and thinking the active lifestyle that military people enjoy has been altered forever, along with your independence and your personal and professional goals,” Wilson said. “This clinic gives all that back to you.”
In 2010, Disabled American Veterans named Riley Outstanding Veteran of the Year; last year, his fellow disabled veterans elected him to lead the organization as national commander.
For Riley, the greatest joy is witnessing veterans’ “joy to be alive again, and (having) a path ahead that they can see.”
“It’s truly miracles on the mountainside,” he said. “They’re changing peoples’ lives here.”
Snowmass Mayor Markey Butler, an avid supporter of the clinic, said she hopes “every single person in the community engages in conversation with these veterans.”
“Their stories are heart-warming,” said Butler, noting that she “spent about four hours talking with veterans” Sunday.
“I hope we all thank them. And I know we will. We’ll thank them for their service and engage in conversations,” Butler continued. “It’s a pretty special time for all of us here in Snowmass. It reminds me, and I hope it does everyone else, of the freedom we all enjoy.”
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