Wounded warriors in a therapeutic setting
September 18, 2011
BASALT – Fly fishing has long been known to be a therapeutic, relaxing pastime. Such mountain activities also are used as a path to help restore confidence, physical mobility and social skills not only for disabled veterans, but their entire families.Last Wednesday, Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities, or C.A.M.O., partnered with the Taylor Creek Fly Fishing Shop in Basalt as part of a week-long program to take eight service members on angling outings on the Fryingpan River. C.A.M.O. is a division of Challenge Aspen, a Snowmass Village nonprofit that provides outdoor activities to those with physical and cognitive disabilities.Sarah Williams Volf, the director of C.A.M.O, began the process of funding, developing, recruiting and implementing the program in 2004, after she joined Challenge Aspen in 2001. She had moved from the United Kingdom where she volunteered with orphans and refugees in conflicted regions such as Bosnia and Belarus.”To be exposed as a civilian to a war-torn area has a major impact on your life,” Volf said. “Something changes. You really reflect.”C.A.M.O.’s reputation is growing world-wide as it has worked with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland and the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas to find participants. C.A.M.O. designs programs that fit the needs and interests of participants – for instance, all-female camps, camps for visual-impaired soldiers and programs for burn victims.The programs are supported through fundraising, and participants are often accompanied by family members. Everything from airfare to food, program costs and lodging is provided by Challenge Aspen. Spouses and children will often join the program and participate in the activities. First-time participant Mark Lyons, who attended Wednesday’s outing, was already talking about attending another camp and bringing his wife and two daughters, Volf said. Lyons, a self-described wanderer of the East Coast, is a Marine Corps staff sergeant who lost his leg in the recent war in Iraq. Volf also has received positive feedback from relatives of injured soldiers. “I don’t know what happened out there,” Volf said one wife told her in a voicemail, “but after two years of my husband being at home [and after the program], my real husband is home. He feels like a man again.”Volf said the importance is the human connection along with an environmental connection.”We are so blessed with our environment and our community,” Volf said. “When these guys are here, we can’t even get them indoors. They want to be outside. They want to push the limits.”Wounded soldiers often are restricted to hospitals, remaining only in contact with doctors, nurses and family members. That’s why Volf said the interaction with other veterans, family members, volunteers and the Aspen community is so important.The camps each week run with few employees. Volf, with help of volunteers and interns, will coordinate most of the week’s events. She values the importance of local businesses that help with C.A.M.O.’s success, ranging from pizza restaurants to the Winter X Games.”It’s good to give back,” said Jason Peltack, a guide for the Taylor Creek Fly Fishing Shop and a Marine Corps veteran himself. Peltack said he enjoyed working with the veterans, and was Lyons’ guide for Wednesday’s fly-fishing adventure.Volf also plans to partner C.A.M.O in the summer with various hiking, mountain climbing, horse-back riding, rafting and Jeep tour outfits that allow participants different opportunities. In the winter, C.A.M.O. offers many skiing and snowboarding camps as well as a backcountry hut camp, where participants spend three days in the wilderness.C.A.M.O. offers about 12 programs each summer and nine programs this coming winter.Programs average around 12 service members but can have as many as 16.Volf described how Walter Reed Medical Center sees not only higher number of veterans treated, but also the severity of their injuries is getting worse – including double and triple amputees.”[Soldiers] had been very active,” said Volf. “They’d been recruited; they’d been trained, deployed and then injured very quickly and could be in a hospital to up to two years – young men and women in their early twenties.”After all her work, Volf said the numbers still leave her staggered. She said of the hundreds of thousands deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 5,000 have been killed and 45,000 have returned with permanent disabilities.Volf hopes that these wounded warriors are honored for their sacrifice and is grateful that her program and Challenge Aspen is located where it is.”I am very motivated to keep this program going within Challenge Aspen,” she said. “This is such an accommodating place. This community is so accepting.”Challenge Aspen will host a fundraiser from 5-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at Jimmy’s An American Restaurant & Bar in Aspen. The event will include hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, music and a raffle.Visit http://www.challengeaspen.org for more information about how to get involved or to donate.