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Back to the Archives 04.07.04  

Vets find hope and love during sports clinic
By Ann Larson Sun Special Correspondent

The war in Iraq is different from past wars. Adamant supporters and anti-war demonstrators disagree on whether Iraqi Freedom was necessary, but both sides say they support the troops.

Snowmass Village Resort Association’s national sales manager and Vietnam vet Neil Camas decided to do more than just pay lip service to his support of the troops. He decided to raise money to sponsor a few disabled veterans from Iraqi Freedom to come to the 18th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, April 4 to 9.

The vets who come to the clinic must pay for their own travel and lodging expenses. For the 18, 19, and 20-year-olds of the Iraqi war, who have recently emerged from extensive rehabilitation at Walter Reed Hospital missing arms, legs, sight and/or peace of mind, the expense is daunting.

At first, Camas hoped to raise enough money to bring a few of the newly disabled vets plus their support person, a wife, friend or family member, to the clinic. With the help of the Town and its Marketing director Susan Hamley, a letter was mailed to all Snowmass Village residents and businesses asking for contributions. With additional donations from valley-wide business, nearly $32,000 was collected.

As a result, 21 newly disabled veterans will have the opportunity to come here to be nourished and supported by those who had to deal with similar losses in the past. The Winter Sports Clinic attracts disabled servicemen and women from World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars to the current conflagrations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

An ex-Medivac pilot and disabled veteran, Camas personally knows the devastation that war can bring to its combatants. At least this time, the veterans are coming home to support. He remembers being spit on and shunned after returning from Vietnam.

“The 18-to-20 year olds at Walter Reed Hospital are often thinking their whole life is finished,” he said. Who’s going to want me? What can I do? These are questions that arise as they lie in their beds with newly missing limbs and abilities.

“There are 40 more new guys at Walter Reed,” he said. “One kid already had 17 operations. Most need five or six operations to fit a prosthesis.” But the problems don’t stop there. “I have friends from Vietnam, whose prosthesis still hurts after 30 years,” he said.

Camas was surprised and appreciative of the generosity of the Roaring Fork Valley. “The majority of the money came from Snowmass Village residents, shops, Skico and Alpine bank. It almost made me cry,” he said.

“No one else is going to help them, unless they get scholarships. If you get them now, you can change their lives. You have to start as soon as possible to make them feel better,” said the Vietnam vet, who felt his life was ruined for many years after the that war.

Winter Sports Clinic originator and director, Sandy Trombetta of the Grand Junction Veterans Administration, agrees. “When the new vets meet the old vets and see that they are living and living well, that’s the magic. It will jump-start their own rehabilitation and new life. They will be supercharged,” he said.

“The clinic is not about making great skiers, it’s about making great people,” he continued. “It’s serious rehabilitation. These people are joining a special fraternity. They will learn from those who came before them. They will be embraced.”

Although skiing is the focal point of the clinic, and completely supported by Aspen Skiing Co. and Challenge Aspen, the 400 disabled vets who are attending this year will also have opportunity to learn scuba diving, rock climbing, horseback riding, sled hockey, shooting sports and yoga. But it is often the social aspects of the week-long program that are most important to the vets.

“The Elks are a major source of contacts,” said Trombetta. From the time the vets arrive at DIA to the time they depart, Elk Lodge members are there to help them.

Bob Vale of the Veterans Committee of the Aspen Elks Lodge has been busy preparing for the Winter Sports Clinic participants. “This thing is so huge,” he said.

Like their counterparts in Denver, the Aspen Elks will be on hand to load and unload all the veterans in wheelchairs as they arrive and depart from the airport. While the Front Range Elks transport the incoming vets from their arrival gates at DIA to their Aspen departure gate, the Aspen Elks transport them to their lodging in Snowmass Village. But this is just the start of the work for the local Elk volunteers.

During the week, the Aspen Elks Lodge is open daily for socializing, food and drink. They also man Cajun picnics at Ashcroft. The Glenwood Springs and Rifle lodges offer trap shooting and a spit BBQ daily at the Lake Christine shooting range in Basalt.

One of the highlights for many vets are the snowcat tours of Aspen Mountain. Just loading the paraplegic vets into the snowcat is a monumental task. But there are no complaints from either the vets or the volunteers, according to Vale.

At this point, most of the volunteer positions for the clinic week are already taken. “We fill up with volunteers by September,” said Trombetta. “We have a 90 percent return rate.”

Help with horses

For those who would still like to support the disabled veterans next week, volunteers are needed for the horseback riding portion of the clinic, according to Pat Horwitz of Sopris Therapy Services. Experienced horse handlers are needed, as well as safety spotters who will walk along either side of the adaptive riders and their trained therapy horses.

Horwitz also sees the importance of the social aspects of the trail rides, when the handlers and spotters interact with the vets. It doesn’t take experience to be a safety spotter, just an open heart and a few hours training on Sunday, April 4, at either noon or 6 p.m. at the Aspen Equestrian Center (behind Catherine’s Store on the back road to Carbondale).

Anyone wishing to meet and help a disabled vet experience the fun of horseback riding can volunteer for one to four days, Monday, April 5, through Thursday, April 8, from 1 – 4 p.m. Those interested should contact Horwitz at 963-4718.

Missing limbs are no deterrent for U.S. veterans of past and current wars, who want to learn to make turns on the white stuff on a Monoski. 

The Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass Village keeps getting bigger and better and is the high point of each year for many disabled veterans, who return year after year. For the young vets of the Iraqi Freedom suffering from the ravages of war, the clinic will show them that there is hope, support and a new life awaiting their futures. -Article and Photo by Ann Larson.

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All rights reserved. Permission to post granted to Paralinks by Ann Larson