By Tom Hall, AW2 Guest Blogger
Adaptive ski instructers Beth Troutman, Manny Pina, and Jim Zsiga.
Some of the best snow conditions in recent memory greeted a very special group of skiers during the weekend of February 27-28, at Liberty Mountain in southern Pennsylvania. The Fourth Annual Wounded Warriors weekend saw 15 Soldiers from Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center enjoy two days of skiing and snowboarding with their families.
The weekend’s events also included sponsored dinners in Gettysburg on Friday and Saturday evenings, thanks to generous contributions from The Quality Inn and the Best Western Gettysburg Hotel.
However, the highlight of the weekend was almost certainly the surprise visit by First Lady Michelle Obama, who was coincidentally skiing at Liberty Mountain on Sunday. During lunch, the First Lady, for whom advocacy of military families is a signature cause, came through and shook hands with Warriors and instructors alike, and thanked the Soldiers for their service and sacrifice.
The skiers and snowboarders who signed up for the event through their Warrior Transition Units had the opportunity to receive lessons from the instructional staff at Blue Ridge Adaptive Snow Sports (BRASS), a nonprofit organization that links up ski and snowboard instructors from Liberty Mountain with skiers for specialized instruction geared towards individual disabilities.
First-year instructor Bruce Bennett noted the irony in the Warriors calling the instructors ‘heroes,’ while his student for the weekend was able to ski without physical support following a traumatic brain injury that has resulted in three years of physical therapy and requiring a cane to walk.
The Warriors’ disabilities ranged from extensive shrapnel wounds and a shattered humorous to amputated legs and traumatic brain injuries, but that stopped no one from enjoying the great snow conditions and warm weather. Depending on the nature of the injury, BRASS is equipped with specialized equipment that improve the Warriors’ experience.
The biggest goal of the weekend is to provide an opportunity to be outside and break the routine of physical therapy, while still getting valuable exercise. Many of the Warriors skied and snowboarded prior to their injuries. This program allows them to return to an activity they loved while giving them the tools to adapt to their new physical condition.
Instructor Beth Troutman’s student, who had only skied once before her injury, was so excited that she showed up one hour early. She enjoyed the experience so much that she now hopes to become an instructor herself.
One of the best examples for them to emulate, is one of the BRASS instructors, Manny Pina, who lost a leg in a motor vehicle accident after returning from Iraq. Since then, he has learned to ski without his prosthetic—what is called ‘three-tracking’—and has been instructing other adaptive skiers for the past two years. During the weekend he skied a double-black diamond (skier lingo for the most difficult terrain) for the first time, while one of the Warriors with whom he was skiing made her first trip down an intermediate level trail for the first time since her injury, which had left her knees extremely weak.
Instructor Cheryl Monroe noticed that while everyone was nervous at the outset on Saturday morning, she saw changes in everyone’s confidence by the afternoon and following day, reflecting the sense of accomplishment that came from conquering individual fears and the physical challenge presented by the mountain.
Although the program for Wounded Warriors has focused on one weekend per season for the last four years, organizers are hopeful that this winter’s record attendance will lead to more regular participation in the future. Fort Meade Warrior Transition Unit Coordinator Sandra Santos called this a worthwhile goal, as her desire consistent among all the coordinators, was that she could bring the Fort Meade Warriors more often throughout the season.
Adaptive Program Supervisor Leslie White also felt that the very successful weekend made her look forward to a more sustained program for the next season by working directly with the Warrior Transition units.
The author is a volunteer adaptive ski instructor and an active duty lieutenant colonel in the Army.