By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 30, 2009 - Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki opened the 23rd annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here last night, encouraging more than 400 participants he said had found their way "to the top of the mountain in search of miracles." "Thank you for your service. Thank you for your examples of courage and determination," the former Army chief of staff told the group, which includes about 150 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "You have overcome a lot of obstacles in life to be here, and you will overcome many more by the time this clinic is over."
The clinic, jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
As they learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, wheelchair fencing, sled hockey, snowmobiling, and sled hockey during a six-day program, the veterans' eyes get opened to a whole new world of opportunity.
"I think you will do things this week some of you thought you would never do again," Shinseki told the veterans. "I hope you are as excited about the experiences you are going to have as all the rest of us are at being here to witness your triumphs."
Shinseki, a disabled veteran who lost part of his right foot in Vietnam, said experiencing a life-altering event changes the body, but not the person. "Your dreams and hopes are just as real today," he told the veterans. "It's the heart and the mind that keep hope alive."
Shinseki praised the strides the veterans have made in proving the human spirit's ability to triumph over adversity. "Your courage and determination speak for themselves," he said. "We marvel at your spirit. We marvel at your perseverance. We celebrate your accomplishments."
The secretary urged the veterans to take those accomplishments a step further this week as they experience the "exhilaration and healing powers of these mountains" and the support of corporate sponsors and volunteers who make the winter sports clinic possible.
"This is not just about this one week," Shinseki said. He expressed hope that the participants will gain newfound confidence here that helps them through the next 51 weeks, so they return to next year's clinic even further along in their rehabilitation.
Raymond E. Dempsey, national commander of Disabled American Veterans and a first-timer at the clinic, encouraged the veterans to think of the week ahead as a battle they're entering together.
"We all have a fight in front of us this week," he said. "We will meet the mountain as individuals, and also as a band of brothers."
Dempsey said he looks forward to experiencing the camaraderie disabled veterans find at the winter sports clinic. "This is a chance to gather inspiration, an opportunity to be mentors and be mentored," he said. "And you won't be the same when you go home."
Another newcomer to the clinic is Chad Erumpton, a Marine Corps staff sergeant who had both legs amputated last year as a result of an improvised explosive device attack in Iraq in 2005.
Erumpton, who was medically retired in April 2006, snowboarded for 10 years before being wounded. Now, he's looking forward to taking his first whirl down the slopes using adaptive snowboard techniques.
"This is a great program," he said of the clinic. "I'm meeting some great people, and networking and learning about resources. But most of all, I'm just here to have fun."