Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
I was happy about being assigned to cover the annual VA/Disabled American Veterans Winter Sports Clinic
in Snowmass, Colo., for a few reasons. I'm more comfortable outdoors than indoors, (except when foul weather is my reason for being there). I relished the opportunity to get some crisp, clean, low oxygen, reminds-me-how-out-of-shape-I-am air in my system, but the one thing I looked forward to more was an opportunity to be inspired by the veterans.
The event has been going on for 22 years now, and is not limited to the veterans who are on our radar from the current conflicts.
We started with 82-year-old Ted Hubbard from Seattle. He has survived three wars: WWII, Korea, two tours in Vietnam, and still has the scars to prove it. He carries a bullet in his hip, has had another bullet run through his elbow and survived a mortar blast thanks in part to the comrade beside him who perished by absorbing the brunt of the explosion, but it still wreaked havoc on his midsection. After surviving all that, here Mr. Hubbard is, nearly blind and skiing down a mountain with the assistance of ski instructors.
Hubbard isn't the type to feel sorry for himself. He choked up when he started reminiscing about the man who had saved his life, and about his wife of 63 years who had passed on less than a year and a half ago, but his tears were soon replaced by smiles and a desire to get on down the mountain and stop thinking about the pain.
If your life includes a wheelchair, it rolls by at a relatively slow and restrained pace. Whether tethered on one of these sit-skis with an instructor, or gliding down the mountain on her own, there is an unencumbered freedom that is hard to replicate. Sharee Daniels was a woman who had served in Bosnia but was now fighting Multiple Sclerosis. For her, like so many first timers trying out "the bucket" (an affectionate name for a sit-ski) the speed was addictive.
There is a certain matter-of-fact tone when you hear some veterans describe what happened to them. It all depends on their state of psychological healing. The Veterans Administration was very conscious, as were we, about how we approached participants. For some of them these events are a chance to get away, to not be reminded of the bomb, the accident, the trauma, the loss; of their friends, their abilities. It is an environment where they are surrounded by fellow comrades who know the meaning of sacrifice, people who don't stare surreptitiously at their prosthetics, or ask them awkward questions with their eyes.
For others these events are life challenges, whether it be hoisting oneself up a rock wall one excruciating pulley at a time, or getting on a ski lift wondering if you're going to fall as soon as you get off the chair. Jonathan Lujan teared up when he described the event the day before, when he stood on skis at the top of a mountain and called his father to say he was back. Lujan had a spinal compression injury and with the help of leg braces is able to walk again. He had been skiing since he was a little boy growing up in Colorado, but getting up on the mountain this past week, was a process of rediscovery and of reclaiming parts of his life. He fell a few times, but like almost every one of these veterans, it isn't the fall that defined him, it is his ability and will to get back up and keep going.
Darrel McCauley survived an accident in a missile elevator in the Navy, but watching him come down that mountain in a sit-ski, at amazing speeds with no instructors anywhere nearby - you'd think he was the missile. McCauley has been coming for eight years, and despite the trepidation that first year on the slopes, he is now one of those older guys helping to inspire the newbies.
Bill White is a double amputee who scubas, competes in the Highland Games, lifts weights and can withstand far colder temperatures not because he is from Chicago, but oddly enough because of the science of heat loss. He explained to me that since we lose heat through our extremities, he is at a slight advantage in the cold. Considering that he is missing two of those extremities; an arm and a leg, and what remains of them are well wrapped and insulated, the heat just moves through to the rest of his body. An odd fact, I had never considered.
For many of these men and women, just being out in someplace as spectacular as Snowmass, on top of a mountain, was breaking ground. Consider that most people in wheelchairs are seeing life at about a three-to-four foot level. Perhaps they'll ride a glass-sided elevator, but being on top of a mountain and looking down that mountain is a bit of a psychological shot in the arm.
It was on the second day that we began speaking to veterans from Iraq. Mitch Bocik was an active guy before he got into the military, playing just about any and every sport he could. His injury is relatively fresh, so for him to be here and trying this already is inspiring. His story has another twist. The brother who was with him on the mountain, DJ, was there with him in Iraq when an IED was set off under his vehicle. Both the Bocik brothers work in what is known as "route clearance." These are the teams that drive the roadways before convoys have to. They secure these roads, sometimes by absorbing the bombs set out for the convoys. DJ's vehicle is always first, but it was Mitch's vehicle that took the explosion that day. DJ was the first one there, to pull his little brother out of the rubble. DJ was still looking out for his little brother on the mountain during this trip. Amazingly enough, the Bociks also have a little sister in the service.
Jason Poole describes his former self as a bit of a "hotboy;" a trash-talking, fun-loving former Brit who was always optimistic about life. His enthusiasm has not waned. He is blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and you can see the scars on the side of his head from his traumatic brain injury surgeries. He is conscious that his brain isn't back up to speed yet, but that doesn't stop him from smiling and enjoying the mountain. He knows his balance isn't back yet, he knows he is going to fall, but he got out there and enjoyed as much as he could.
So many have stories of being in comas for weeks, if not months and almost everyone had stories of their grueling physical therapy. An event like this is where they put that work to the test, and for most of them, it pays off.
If you've never been to any event featuring disabled athletes, I'd encourage you to do it at least once in your life. The people who participate aren't the ones who sit on their couches and feel sorry for themselves, their predicaments, their lot, even when almost everyone around them would certainly allow the pity. These are the guys (and girls) who get up and go. They've all had their moments of weakness, when they regained consciousness to unrecognizable bodies, or became sadly conscious of diminished motor or mental skills, or when remembering their former skills and abilities. However, these are the type of people who are actively challenging themselves to be better day by day, a lesson the able-bodied could always use.
[Editor's note: Watch Hari's experience skiing with the veterans below!]