By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 31, 2009 - Someone who has lived with a disability for more years than he cares to count knows exactly what newly disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going through. Jake Hipps, 54, served as a Marine Corps lance corporal during the Vietnam War era, and his life made a dramatic turn during an accident he still doesn't like to talk about that landed him in a wheelchair.
Sixteen years later, he considers himself an old sage who can be an example to young troops struggling to accept their disabilities.
So between runs down black-diamond slopes during the 23rd annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, he cheers on fellow veterans tackling adaptive skiing and other adaptive recreational activities for the first time.
"You have to let them know that this isn't the end of the road," Hipps said. "I tell them, 'Watch me grow, and you can grow, too.'"
Hipps credits a dedicated Department of Veterans Affairs staff, and a whole host of events the VA sponsors, with helping him take the steps to turn his life around. In fact, he said, he's more active now that when he was walking.
"What's important is living one day at a time," he said. "That's how I've learned to take life."
Kyle Keinitz, 28, who was paralyzed in a car accident in December 2002, said newly disabled troops go through an almost inevitable process.
"When you're first injured, you have to go through that mental downfall into acceptance," said the former Marine Corps lance corporal. "But once you get past that, rehabilitation is a tool to get better, both physically and mentally."
An avid skier before his accident, Keinitz said, he wasn't willing to let a wheelchair and a dose of nervousness stand between him and the mountains he loves. "I'm a 'baptism by fire' kind of guy, so I gave it a whirl" at last year's clinic, he said. "I was hooked after the first day."
Now back at his second winter sports clinic, Keinitz said he's passing what he learned along to his fellow veterans. He encourages them to embrace the therapy VA offers to get their bodies stronger – a big step, he said, toward getting mentally healthy, too.
"And when you're done with therapy, don't stop," he said. "Don't sit on the couch. If there's something you can try, try it."
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki challenged veterans like Hipps and Keinitz during the clinic's March 28 opening ceremonies to take newly disabled comrades under their wings and mentor them as they learn to live with their disabilities.
"They have a lot of living in front of them, and they have a role in the quality of that living," Shinseki said during an interview with American Forces Press Service.
Shinseki said he believes the winter sports clinic gives young veterans "a glimpse of what is possible if they keep hope alive."
For Army Staff Sgt. Jake Leitz, whose car hit a sheet of ice just a year ago that sent him into a wheelchair, the opportunity to learn from others who understand his situation like few others can is a big plus of the winter sports clinic.
Leitz, a Montana National Guardsman, spent five months in three different hospitals being treated for a compressed spinal cord before his VA recreational therapist suggested he give the clinic a try.
"I jumped right into it. I didn't hesitate at all," said 29-year-old Lietz.
He described his first ski experience yesterday in superlatives: "a blast," "amazing," and "one of the most fun things I've ever done."
But Leitz said he's taking far more away from the clinic than a good time. "It's camaraderie," he said. "It reaffirms that no matter what happens to us, the camaraderie never leaves. There's always somebody out there willing to teach me. It's awesome."
Just two days into the clinic, Leitz already has received tips from a fellow vet who underwent a stem cell procedure like the one he'll go through in May. Another veteran is committed to teaching him how to "hold a wheelie" in his wheelchair.
"It reinforces that there are plenty of guys and girls out there, all in the same situation," he said. "We're all here together, helping each other. The camaraderie never leaves."
Sandy Trombetta, VA's national director for the clinic, said the goal of the six-day clinic is to push disabled veterans' limits and help them discover things they never imagined they still could do. He called the experience a "ride of discovery" that gives participants new motivation to press on with their rehabilitation.
Kevin White, a member of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center's medical team, said he marvels at the therapeutic impact of the winter sports clinic. "It lets the veterans know they can do anything they want, just like before," he said.
But the camaraderie and spirit of the clinic last long after the closing-day awards ceremony, he said.
"When the veterans go back home, it definitely makes a big difference," he said. "After they come here, they just know what's possible."