‘Today, I was like an animal’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Today, I was like an animal’

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Katie Redding/The Aspen TimesJeffrey Eisenbeiser, deputy assistant director for the U.S. Secret Service, teaches self-defense tactics to blind veterans at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village this week.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” The Secret Service was at the Silvertree Hotel last night.

But Special Agent Mark Copanzzi, and Jeffrey Eisenbeiser, deputy assistant director of intelligence, weren’t there to protect President Barack Obama. They were teaching some of the blind veterans assembled in Aspen/Snowmass this week what the Secret Service knows.

Referring repeatedly to the “criminal element,” Special Agent Mark Copanzzi reminded veterans that the Secret Service doesn’t just follow the president around. Much of its time, he said, is spent visiting event venues 14 to 21 days in advance, to prepare for every possible scenario.

“These same things … you can do at home,” said Copanzzi, just before teaching his audience the best moves to outwit an attacker ” no small task in a room full of blind men and women.

Across the way, a comedian was discussing his first experience being towed by an instructor in a “bucket ski” ” one of the tools used to introduce paraplegic and quadriplegic skiers to skiing. The room, half cleared of tables to accommodate wheelchairs, was full of laughing veterans.

The events were just two in a jam-packed week for more than 400 veterans with disabilities ranging from traumatic brain injuries to visual impairments. The veterans are visiting Snowmass Village from March 29 to April 3, attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The event is billed as the largest of its kind in the world.

Since Sunday, the veterans have been learning alpine and nordic skiing from more than 200 instructors who have traveled to Snowmass to teach them. In their spare time, the veterans have also been shooting trap in Basalt, playing sled hockey at the Aspen ice rink, scuba diving in the Silvertree hotel pool, and heading to the hot springs pool in Glenwood Springs, among other activities.

For John Devine, a Vietnam veteran who has come to the event for 11 years, the clinic began as a chance to be mentored by those who have had a disability longer than he has.

“The last few years, especially with the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns going on, I’ve had a chance to push myself on the younger guys, in a gentle way,” Devine said, taking a break from selling Marine Corps fleece vests to talk. He said he tries to teach the younger veterans about their benefits, or just show them that it’s still possible to have a normal life with a job and family.

Most importantly, the clinic has fostered a lifelong love of skiing in Devine, who had never skied before attending the clinic. Now he counts himself among a team of disabled veteran skiers in New England who call themselves Team Chowdah.

“I have little flashbacks from when I first started, and it was scary,” Devine said. “When I skied at Crested Butte the first time, I was afraid ” and today, I was like an animal,” he said, grinning.

The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic began in 1987 with roughly 90 veterans and 20 staff members. In 2008, 409 participants attended from across the country, along with 200 certified disabled ski instructors and several members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Today, several members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team are veterans who learned to ski at the clinic.

The clinic, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Disabled American Veterans, has been held in Snowmass Village-Aspen area for the past eight years.


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