‘Miracles on the mountainside’: One veteran’s time with Winter Sports Clinic
The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic is about more than the skiing, sled hockey, rock-wall climbing, and other activities. For veterans like Hector Hernandez Rivera, the clinic is life saving.
He spent 14 years in the Marine Corps, including four tours in Iraq, where he suffered three traumatic brain injuries. When he got out in 2014, he said, he dealt with invisible issues, such as a speech impediment and balance and hearing issues as a result of his many brain injuries. He was also battling mental-health struggles at a time when mental health was not taken as seriously.
“I felt worthless, alone,” he said. “(I was) going into a dark world thinking everybody else will be better without me being around.”
At first, he didn’t trust going to a psychiatrist and was struggling with alcohol use. When he finally did try to talk to someone, he said he felt he was betrayed because he was sent to a mental institution and classified as suicidal with a plan despite that not being his intention.
“I was telling them I was feeling numb, and they just kept asking ‘What do you mean feeling numb?'” he said.
Eventually, Hernandez Rivera got a new primary care doctor who put him in a polytrauma program. When a TBI is associated with a significant secondary injury or with mental-health conditions such as post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or substance use, the result is known as polytrauma and can have effects that compound what’s seen in brain injuries alone.
The day he went to polytrauma, Hernandez Rivera’s recreational therapist decided to do everything in his power to submit Hernandez Rivera’s package to the Winter Sports Clinic. That day happened to be the last day to submit a package to the clinic. He chased down Hernandez Rivera’s doctors to get everything signed off, so Hernandez Rivera could attend the clinic.
“I thought, ‘Well gosh, this guy’s working so hard. Maybe I’ll give it a try,” Hernandez Rivera said.
And just like that, he was in Snowmass at his first Winter Sports Clinic in 2016. While the other veterans were teeming with excitement about the week’s events, he had a different mindset.
“Why was everybody so hyped up about this place? What was so good?” he said.
He was still struggling with suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse and planned to kill himself when he first got to the clinic. Everything changed for him when he realized he was surrounded by veterans dealing with and going through the same things he was going through.
“From being in a dark place, wanting to end my life to now, wanting to live and looking forward to helping other veterans – it’s a tremendous impact,” Hernandez Rivera said.
Now, seven years later, Hernandez Rivera skies down the mountain with a smile on his face. One of his instructors, Jon Jonis, stopped to ask him if his face muscles hurt from how often he was smiling.
It was sunny, then windy, then dumping snow, then sunny again for his Thursday afternoon lesson at Snowmass, but that didn’t stop him from smiling and cheering on his fellow veterans as they skied down the hill.
This is Jonis’ first year as an adaptive instructor with the Winter Sports Clinic. Andrea Hanson, Hernandez Rivera’s other instructor, has been an adaptive instructor with the clinic for about 15 years. They all agreed their favorite run so far was Bull Run off the Elk Camp Lift.
Hernandez Rivera said he hopes that one day he can be an adaptive ski instructor for the clinic. Currently, he volunteers at an organization in St. Louis to help disabled kids and veterans learn to downhill ski.
“It’s been so rewarding and now it’s my mission. I’ve got to help these guys out,” he said. “In return, it’s therapeutic to me as well, just knowing you’re making a difference not only in your own life.”
Hernandez Rivera said he’s started teaching his daughters to ski, and now they have a new family activity to look forward to doing each year.
Though the clinic may be intimidating for first-time veterans, Hernandez Rivera said, his advice is to open up, give it a chance, and to not put the “clown face” on, which he said means to not put up a fake, happy front.
“Don’t be hardcore. We’re all hurting in our own way. Don’t put that clown face on. Be true to yourself,” he said.
“They don’t call this place Miracle Mountain for no reason. It truly lives up to its name,” Hernandez Rivera said. “I hope my story helps somebody, another veteran that’s struggling. It’s a struggle all the time, but there’s a purpose out there.”
To reach Audrey Ryan, email her at email@example.com.
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