Wounded Warriors | Taking Tahoe by Storm
TAHOE, Calif. andamp;#8212; Conservative, liberal andamp;#8212; it doesn’t matter to Manny Pia, U.S. Army E-4 Specialist, retired. Everybody deserves respect.Pia came to the United States from Puerto Rico with $300 and two suitcases, learned the English language, got an education and served in the U.S. military to protect the American freedoms he respects and so greatly cherishes.He served from 1996-2005, with the years 2003-04 in Iraq, until he lost his right leg.andamp;#8220;I fought there to give people the freedom to do what they want andamp;#8212; within reason,andamp;#8221; said Pia. andamp;#8220;I don’t want them cussing in front of my kids.andamp;#8221;Disabled Sports USA Far West brought 25 veterans who suffered life-altering disabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Tahoe area for a week-long Wounded Warrior Ski andamp; Snowboard Ability Camp, offering the service men a twist on personal freedom: snow sports.andamp;#8220;Our role is to teach them to relearn a sport, to introduce them to new sports, and to enjoy it with their disability,andamp;#8221; said Disabled Sports Program Coordinator Michael Hunter. andamp;#8220;It helps when they are learning with other people with disabilities andamp;#8212; they can talk things through andamp;#8212; it’s not just one guy who lost his legs on his own.andamp;#8221;What do you see?Kirk M. Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, stands tall at Alpine Meadows, with steel gray hair, a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg March 23, 1969.He spoke of the Wounded Warriors and how civilians see an amputee, with no inkling of the horrible ordeal that loss represents.andamp;#8220;What you don’t see is the effect andamp;#8212; when you are hit with a huge IED (improvised explosive device), you get hit by a blast, you lose limbs, suffer blindness, muscular trauma, bone and arterial damage, brain injury and infections.andamp;#8220;The sands in Afghanistan and Iraq are full of microbes that get deep in the tissue, with infection sometimes surfacing a year later. Amputees suffer extreme throbbing and pain, two years of skin grafts and they tough it out. Most of them maintain.andamp;#8221;Bauer hears all the time sports are a great tool, something to look forward to, to feel empowered again and an opportunity for warriors to take control of their lives. It is essential to andamp;#8220;stay with them and show them what is possible,andamp;#8221; he said.These camps are held all year, all over, from scuba diving to rock climbing to whitewater rafting, from Washington, D.C., to Texas to California.andamp;#8220;Many come back from these camps to thrive,andamp;#8221; said Bauer. andamp;#8220;And take it even further to extreme sports, things they never thought they could do, period.andamp;#8221;He sites a double leg amputee who summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and a team of 12 Wounded Warriors who ran the Hood-to-Coast andamp;#8212; Oregon’s 197-mile relay race andamp;#8212; in 30 hours.Bauer himself plans to climb Mt. McKinley in June with a staff sergeant who is a double leg amputee.Doug Pringle, president of Disabled Sports USA and CEO of the local chapter, tells of the physical challenges these warriors face. They have to learn to balance, a dynamic balance as they move across snow and ice.He knows. He stood on snow learning to ski in 1968, four months after losing his leg in Vietnam.Indomitable spiritandamp;#8220;They have a great spirit,andamp;#8221; Pringle said. andamp;#8220;They might come here skeptical, but they have tried everything (in Tahoe) andamp;#8212; cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, downhill skiing and sled hockey. A triple amputee played goalie.andamp;#8221;andamp;#8220;The adrenaline bug bit me,andamp;#8221; said Juan Dominquez, the indomitable Marine Corps corporal who lost both his legs and his right arm on Oct. 23, 2010, one month after he was deployed to Afghanistan and his battalion took massive hits. andamp;#8220;I started to gain confidence, diving at the puck. I got hit on the thigh, and man did that sting. Things got better when I got a chest protector.andamp;#8221;Dominquez speaks of camaraderie: andamp;#8220;It’s good to be around people andamp;#8212; it’s like being back in the unit, cheering each other on, cracking jokes, taking spills, eating snow.andamp;#8220;What we take away from this is the challenge of getting pushed, that we can do more. Don’t think andamp;#8216;Oh we feel sorry for that guy.’ Think andamp;#8216;He’s gonna be all right.’andamp;#8221;Dominquez is presently rehabilitating at Balboa Hospital in San Diego and participated in the camp last week with fiance Alexis Gomez, to whom he proposed Feb. 13, 2012. andamp;#8220;She’s a trooper,andamp;#8221; Dominquez said. andamp;#8220;She pushes me when I’m tired, she’s everything I need. I couldn’t have picked a better woman.andamp;#8221;andamp;#8220;When he proposed, I said andamp;#8216;why wouldn’t I marry you?’andamp;#8221; said Gomez. andamp;#8220;He is the most amazing, positive man, who my family adores. He asked for my mother’s approval before he proposed.andamp;#8221;Gomez continued, andamp;#8220;I never thought I’d do these things, like picking up his wheelchair, learning to snowboard, but I am happy to do it with him. I love spending every day with him, and we step into each other’s shoes. Juan once said to me, andamp;#8216;Babe, how would you feel if you only had one hand, and you had to ask me to put your make-up on?’andamp;#8221;Dominquez is now fired up to go back to Balboa and get a new hand, so he can kick butt at next year’s camp.It is an essential part of rehabilitation, to do it quickly before hope dims, said Bauer. And to do it with those you love.andamp;#8220;We bring the spouses here as well andamp;#8212; it is more effective if they can do it (sports) together,andamp;#8221; said Hunter. andamp;#8220;It helps smooth them back into civilian life to be as productive and positive as possible, as a team.andamp;#8221;Partners make it happenDuring a sumptuous buffet lunch spread in the Alpine Meadows Lodge, after a morning of downhill skiing, Bauer presented a plaque to major partner representative Randy Ebersberger, director of specialty sales for Anthem Blue Cross. Disabled Sports USA depends on private funding, and couldn’t hold the 50 regional clinics without partnerships.Here in Tahoe, the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena, Alpine and Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours and Tahoe Cross Country partnered to give these fine young men the benefit of mountain air, to break out of the day to day.Tim Hauserman, local author of several outdoor guide books, who also works at Tahoe Cross Country, took the group out for a day of biathlon.andamp;#8220;A lot of them had not cross-country skied before, and I was a bit surprised,andamp;#8221; Hauserman said. andamp;#8220;I didn’t even know they were missing limbs until we got back and they took off their prosthetics. I wasn’t surprised, however, they were all really good shots.andamp;#8221;Army SSG Michael Sanchez had a heck of a time with his two leg protheses andamp;#8212; they were a different set and not a perfect fit for skiing. His favorite bit was the ice hockey, which Hunter refers to as the andamp;#8220;great equalizer.andamp;#8221; None of the participants had played hockey, and Sanchez was a big fan.andamp;#8220;It’s a team sport andamp;#8212; we connect and compete, and it opened a lot of doors,andamp;#8221; he said. andamp;#8220;On the mountain you might be here and another over there, but you put us all in an arena and throw a puck in the middle, things change. There is teamwork and competition.andamp;#8221;Look to the futureandamp;#8220;Through practice and play, through shared hardship, you create a camaraderie in the military, same as in sporting activities,andamp;#8221; said Sanchez.He served in a lot of places and was hit by an IED in Iraq in ’04. Sanchez spent two years in Walter Reed Hospital, and looks forward to his return to San Diego, where he plans to coordinate an equine therapy business, when he andamp;#8220;sells the farmandamp;#8221; in Kentucky. He has two miniature horses, quarter horses and thoroughbreds, and thinks California will be a good fit.andamp;#8220;The biggest hurdle is the mental outlook, the feeling that andamp;#8216;If I can do this, I can do anything,’andamp;#8221; said Pringle, of the Disable Sports motto. andamp;#8220;Achieving a positive self image is essential for success, for anyone.andamp;#8221;andamp;#8220;We share the passion we hold for skiing,andamp;#8221; said Hunter. andamp;#8220;And that only translates one way: on the snow. There is a catharsis, a freedom and self expression on the mountain we hold dear. You see their eyes light up, and say andamp;#8216;Yeah, he’s got it.’andamp;#8221;
Disabled Sports USA Far West was started by World War II veteran Jim Winthers of the 10th Mountain Division.The chapter was founded by the World War II 10th Mountain Division in 1967 to offer support and rehabilitation to Vietnam veterans. The organization paved the way for adaptive sports and recreation for people with disabilities.The Wounded Warrior Ability Celebration is a week-long camp of activities for veterans. Visit http://www.warfightersports.org.To learn more about Disabled Sports USA at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, or to make a donation, visit http://www.DisabledSports.net or call 530-581-4161.For photo galleries of the Ability Celebration, like them on Facebook.