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Sports clinic teaches veterans about more than just skiing

Nate Peterson
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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A 20-year-old soldier sat in his wheelchair Friday on the Snowmass mall and spoke of losses and gains.In December, a roadside bomb detonated under a truck Scott Walker was driving in Balad, Iraq, and ripped off the bottom half of his legs. He was six days away from completing his tour of duty and catching a flight back home.”I volunteered for the mission,” said Walker, a Branson, Mo., resident who served with the Army’s 19th Delta Scout Reconnaissance unit. “I saw the bomb before I hit it. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt in the truck, so jerked the wheel for it to blow up on my side.”Three and half months later, Walker is one of the 341 military veterans in Snowmass Village this past week for the 20th National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic. He talked about all that he has gained since that chaotic day.He talked about recovering the ability to walk. While he ate his lunch in a wheelchair Friday, Walker said he now spends as many as 14 hours a day on his prosthetic legs with the aid of two crutches. He is close to swapping the crutches for a cane, he said. He also spoke of learning to ski for the first time – something he never imagined he would ever do when he still had his legs.This week, under the tutelage of a full-time mono-ski instructor at Snowmass, Walker learned how to turn after only 15 minutes of practice, he said.Shortly after making his first turns on Fanny Hill, he caught the Village Express up the mountain to take his first full run.”We went all the way to the top of the hill and came all the way down with no wrecks,” said Walker, one of 31 vets who traveled to Snowmass from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “The amazing thing is to be able to do something that I would have never done if I wouldn’t have gotten hit. I’ve done so much, and I’ve traveled so much since I’ve been hit. And I’m going to continue to do more. I’m going whitewater rafting and kayaking this summer. … I’m trying to do as much as I can and do it to the fullest.” Walker’s story is unique, but it shares a common thread with the stories of the other veterans who were at Snowmass to ski, snowboard, climb rock walls, fence, scuba dive, play hockey, shoot rifles, and most importantly, socialize with one another.The group of 341 includes veterans of American conflicts both old and new – including veterans of World War II. The list of disabilities also runs the gamut – everything from missing appendages to neurological disabilities, including spinal cord injuries.Amid this diversity, however, there remains a singular objective for each participant in the clinic: to instill confidence by participating in a wide range of challenging activities.David Bradbury, a 42-year-old veteran of the Marines who lost the use of his legs in 1983 after suffering a spinal cord injury, has attended the clinic for the past four years. “I come out because you can try different things,” he said. “The snowmobiling, the ice hockey downtown, the gondola rides, the rifle range. … It’s a camaraderie thing. It’s one of the times during the year where you get to see all different vets from all across the country. Even though you may have served in all different branches of the service, you get an opportunity to sit down and talk about good times and bad, the good spills and the great runs.”Clint Hale, 58, a friend of Bradbury’s from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., concurred. Hale has attended the clinic since its inception 20 years ago at Powderhorn Resort outside Grand Junction.”It’s gotten better every year,” said Hale, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1983 after a botched parachute jump from low altitude during a training mission. He has since regained the use of his legs above his knees. “The technology and the equipment is changing every year,” Hale said. “There’s something new to add each year. I mean, they’re getting people up on snowboards now. If you want to ski some way, they’ll find a way to adapt it and make you ski the way you want.”The clinic, which has been in Pitkin County since 2001, is set to remain in Snowmass until 2008. Sponsors include the Department of Veterans Affairs, Disabled American Veterans, the Grand Junction VA Medical Center and Mesa State College. Nonprofit Challenge Aspen, which specializes in providing athletic opportunities for those with disabilities, is responsible for providing the adaptive instructors for the week.This year, the United States Disabled Ski Team also came on board. On Friday, a group of Paralympic skiers from the U.S. team raced against a group of 22 veterans.Bradbury, who was hand-picked as one of the 22 to compete in the advanced race, said the opportunity was one of the most thrilling moments in his life. “It was challenging, but that’s what this week is about,” he said.Hale said the best thing about the clinic is the opportunity for the older vets to interact with the newer veterans and instill hope.”You see these young guys here and they’re looking bewildered, like, ‘How the hell am I going to that?'” he said. “Then, at the end of the week, they’re like, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ Hopefully they’ll carry that forward to any endeavor they have in their lives. They’ve got a disability that just changes the path they have to take to get from point A to point B. It’s just an alternate route. You want to take these young guys and say, you’re going to be all right. Everything is going to be OK.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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