Disabled veterans find healing through sports
For James Veltri, being able to walk well enough to put away his dishes is a victory.
Add to that the ability to ski and play hockey and lacrosse, and the 32-year-old Navy veteran’s outlook is nowhere near it was after he first suffered his injuries.
Veltri served on active duty from February 2002 to December 2003 before being discharged because he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He attended college in Virginia but was shot in the back of his head and spine while breaking up a bar fight.
Veltri, who now lives in Milwaukee, had several surgeries and was in and out of the hospital for close to a year. He can walk with the aid of a walker, but he has no feeling in his legs from the knees down, and his hamstrings and his right glute muscle doesn’t function.
“My whole aspect of life changed,” Veltri said. “Afterwards I was really depressed for a long time. Just really down, and I didn’t think that I could do anything, and then I found out that I can do stuff. That life still goes on.”
Those activities include wheelchair lacrosse, working out and cooking.
“I was smoking, I was on a lot of painkillers and what not,” Veltri said. “(With) sports, I just stopped smoking because I didn’t have the lung integrity and everything and then quit taking all the narcotics and everything for pain. So it’s very helpful.”
Veltri was one of about 400 former service members gathered for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic from March 30 to April 4 in Snowmass Village. The clinic’s schedule is packed with activities ranging from downhill skiing to rock climbing, curling, hiking and education workshops.
Many of the other participants at the clinic share similar experiences of overcoming depression and accepting their disabilities.
Anthony Evans, of Miami, is an Air Force veteran who returned to the clinic after first participating last year. Evans, a left-leg amputee, was stand-up skiing on April 2 but said he tried mono-skiing earlier in the week.
“Did a lot of falling though, I must admit, but that’s how you get better at it,” Evans said.
Still able to drive, Evans says he is mostly independent. There are just some activities, such as basketball and football, that he’s no longer able to do.
“I’m OK with that, you know — acceptance,” Evans said. “I lost this leg in ’09. … It took me time to accept what had happened in my life, but then I had to realize that it could have been worse: I could have been gone. It is what it is, so now I just try to adapt to life.”
Army veteran Vivian Snyder, of San Francisco, had just retired from the military when she arrived at the clinic. Snyder was an avid skier while stationed in Germany, but March 31 was her first day on skis since being in a helicopter crash. “I just started crying,” she said of her first day back. “Then I was emotionally exhausted all day but I was so happy that I was actually going to do it. … I’m so happy. I just have this feeling of like awe and gratefulness.”
There are almost as many volunteer instructors at the clinic as participants, and they hail from resorts all over the country. Snyder was skiing with two instructors — Rod Ramsey, of Ohio, and Anne Slater, of Buffalo, N.Y. Ramsey is a left-leg amputee and is certified in alpine, adaptive and children’s ski instruction, he said.
“I pray God blesses all these volunteers because we’re all so grateful,” Snyder said. “We can’t put into words how much it means to us.”
Slater said the instructors feel the same.
“You guys think you get a lot out of it, but volunteering, believe me, is just a pleasure and privilege,” Slater said.
The Winter Sports Clinic has been held in Snowmass Village for the past 13 years.
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After this season, the Rifle inmate hand crew will no longer carry out wildfire mitigation projects in Snowmass or the other Roaring Fork Valley communities it regularly works with. The state is set to dissolve it as part of a business reorganization of the Colorado Correctional Industries inmate job skills programs across the state.