Veterans, locals disappointed but understanding of VA’s decision to cancel annual Snowmass clinic
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday that its decision to cancel the upcoming National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass was for “an abundance of caution” because of the coronavirus.
The annual winter sports clinic is co-sponsored by the VA and Disabled American Veterans, and has provided adaptive recreation and rehabilitation experiences for more than 400 veterans in Aspen-Snowmass for roughly 30 years.
“While the Centers for Disease Control still considers COVID-19 to be a low threat to the general American public, VA made this decision out of an abundance of caution,” the agency said in a statement Thursday.
“The department and its co-presenter Disabled American Veterans look forward to serving our veterans at the 2021 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.”
DAV national communications director Rob Lewis confirmed Wednesday night that the clinic, set to start March 29, would be canceled as a result of the spreading coronavirus. VA spokespeople could not be reached Thursday for comment beyond the statement.
Lewis said Wednesday that the VA, not the DAV, made the decision, and he believes it stems from the fact that many of the veterans who attend have illnesses or injury that makes them more susceptible to disease.
As of Thursday evening, no other major winter events in Aspen-Snowmass — like the upcoming NASTAR National Championships and the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships that will take place at the end of the month — have been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. There have been cancellations in bookings, an Aspen Skiing Co. official said.
On Thursday, the first Colorado case of COVID-19 was confirmed at the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco. In a news conference Thursday evening, Gov. Jared Polis said there was a second confirmed case but officials did not release any more information other than it was not related to the case in Summit County.
A WINTER CLINIC FAMILY
With the news of the clinic cancellation, many locals and longtime participants have voiced disappointment and understanding of the VA’s decision.
Devora Exline, a veteran who served as a hospital corpsman for 26 years and is a repeat winter sports clinic attendee, said calling off the clinic is disheartening, but that because veterans travel from all over the country to Snowmass and may be more susceptible to disease, she would worry about bringing COVID-19 to the Snowmass area.
“Understanding how viruses spread and the underlying conditions many of us face, not only could (coronavirus) affect us but it could also affect all of the wonderful volunteers and local people who support us,” Exline said in a phone interview.
“The health and safety of everyone is of the utmost importance, though this is one event every year I thoroughly look forward to.”
The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic first started in 1987 by the VA and has grown to host roughly 400 veterans from across the country and 200 certified adaptive ski instructors annually in Snowmass, featuring a multitude of activities including skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling, scuba diving and sled hockey and becoming one of the largest and most renowned events of its kind.
Exline, who spends her time between California and Maryland, has been attending the winter sports clinic for several years. A registered nurse and volunteer at her local VA hospital, she said she’s learned a ton at the clinic over the years about different adaptive activities, has made deep connections with other veterans and valley locals, and taken many of the clinic’s values and experiences home to her everyday life.
“I knew after the first year of the winter sports clinic I wanted to keep coming back,” Exline said. “These clinics teach you through mental health positivity that you can always do something if you really want to do it, and I’ve loved being able to help others understand that concept so they can live it the same way I’m living it.”
Richard Luft, a veteran from Ohio, also has visited Snowmass for the winter sports clinic for several years, working with his peers as an adaptive ski instructor.
Luft said when he first found out about the clinic and expressed interest in volunteering, he was turned down because he didn’t have the proper qualifications.
So, he became an adaptive ski instructor and started sharing his love of skiing with winter sports clinic veterans every year.
“Helping them is a little work on my part, but seeing the smiles on their faces makes it all worth it,” Luft said. “I love to ski and I love sharing my passion. By helping them better their life, it betters my life.”
Like Exline, Luft also has made deep connections with veterans at the winter sports clinic, keeping in touch with many year round.
When he found out about the clinic cancellation, Luft reached out to his friends and said the sentiment has been largely the same: It’s sad but a necessary decision to keep the veterans and volunteers safe.
“It may be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, but people could be affected and so it was a necessary thing to do,” Luft said. “If safety is our first priority when it comes to skiing, safety should be first and foremost when it comes to health issues like this.”
But the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic hasn’t just served as a way for veterans and instructors to connect with each other and take part in empowering experiences —it’s also been a place for caretakers and family members to connect and celebrate veterans’ growth.
For the past eight years, Viola Miller and her husband, Jeremy, have attended the winter sports clinic.
At Fort Campbell in 1996, Jeremy was in a helicopter that collided with another helicopter during a training exercise. He became wheelchair bound and nonverbal as a result of the accident, Viola said Thursday.
But every year at the winter sports clinic in Snowmass, Jeremy’s made tremendous strides, stand-skiing for roughly 15 feet two years ago and continuing to rock climb with one arm faster and faster each winter, Viola said.
While she echoes thoughts similar to most other locals and participants about the decision to cancel the clinic, she said she will miss seeing Jeremy’s face light up while he skis and takes part in the variety of other events.
“You see people do things they’ve never done before or that they do again but better, and the joy on their face, the happiness that brings to them is amazing,” Viola said. “When you go there you become a part of the winter sports clinic family. It really is just amazing how it brings people together.”
Every year, hordes of locals from organizations including the Aspen Elks Lodge help put on the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, racking up thousands of volunteer hours helping out the veterans and adaptive instructors.
Although the clinic is based in Snowmass, where the veterans, instructors and caretakers stay, events take place up and down the valley and incorporate much of the Roaring Fork community.
While Snowmass Village is sure to feel one of the greatest negative economic impacts as a result of not hosting the winter sports clinic, Mayor Markey Butler said the town will bounce back.
“I think it’s the right decision, but it’s disappointing because in Snowmass Village we look forward to the veterans coming every year,” said Butler, who also chairs the Pitkin County public health board.
Over the years, Butler has seen more and more village locals engage with the visiting veterans, and said many town businesses and organizations do a lot to support the clinic attendees throughout the weeklong event, offering their own discounts and deals that contribute to the overall experience.
“What the clinic does is create a great sense of enthusiasm,” Butler said. “Many locals get a full appreciation of these men and women and the sacrifices they’ve made.”
Jeffery Burrell, complex general manager of both the Westin Snowmass Resort and Wildwood Snowmass Hotel, expressed similar thoughts, noting that both of his complex’s hotels were sold out for the clinic.
Burrell said his staff have already initiated a marketing push to mitigate the impact of the clinic cancellation as much as possible, but said some veterans and their families are still booked to visit March 29 through April 3 and is sure the resort will make up any losses.
The Westin and Wildwood have a contract with the VA to host the winter sports clinic through 2023, Burrell said, and isn’t as concerned with the financial aspect of not hosting this year’s clinic as he is with the well-being of the veterans.
“This was a huge piece of our March and April business, but in the grand scheme of things, we understand why the decision was made,” Burrell said. “At the end of the day, it’s more about taking care of people than worrying about financials.”
This widespread support and drive to care for the clinic veterans is exactly why Fred Venrick, a longtime Aspen Elk and mountain district chair for the Elks National Veterans Service Commission, is looking to do something for the veterans who were planning to come for this year’s clinic, regardless of it being canceled.
The local lodge’s veterans services committee is exploring ideas, like sending the attendees some sort of gift package and even hosting a kind of mini-clinic for Colorado-based veterans with help from the Westin and Wildwood.
“We just want to let the veterans know we’re thinking about them and to take a negative thing and turn it around into something positive,” Venrick said.