Now, nearly eight years ago to the day since the accident that nearly took his life, Wade is experiencing life on a different level. In addition to sustaining a traumatic brain injury, he lost his right arm above the elbow in the accident, which has made going back to “normal” life impossible. And while life has been far from normal in the years since an insurgent’s bomb irreparably altered his life’s course, this week he’s regaining something resembling normalcy: Ted Wade is going skiing.
Wade is one of the close to 20 veterans participating in this week’s Winter Veterans Adventure Camp through the Telluride-based non-profit organization, Telluride Adaptive Sports Program. TASP, a group that works to provide therapeutic recreational opportunities for people with disabilities, will provide a week’s-worth of skiing and snowboarding instruction for injured service-duty members on the slopes of Telluride Ski Resort starting Monday.
Participants come from all over the country, and they come with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities stemming from injuries they received while in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also come with a myriad of poignant stories reflecting the ways in which their lives have been drastically altered since their accidents.
Their backgrounds are different and their stories are unique, but they all share the commonality that disabilities impart. And while they’re in Telluride, they’ll also share something else: The chance to experience the freedom and exhilaration of sliding down a snow-covered slope.
“We teach them skiing, we teach them snowboarding, but really, the true therapy is just getting them out on the hill,” says TASP Program Director Tim McGough, explaining that many Winter Adventure participants have just been discharged from the hospital, while others are still rehabilitating in veteran’s hospitals. The former soldiers are in the midst of attempting to integrate back into civilian life after multiple deployments, all while adapting to life with a disability.
“Just to be able to get them out of their homes, away from the stress of rehabilitation and all the other huge hurdles they face reintegrating back into society, and out on the hill in this beautiful setting… it’s like a big sigh of relief for them,” McGough says. “It’s a vacation these guys really deserve.”
For guys like Frank Miller, a longtime participant in TASP’s veterans’ and other ski programs, organizations like TASP have helped open the door to a new world of possibilities. Miller has begun attending adaptive winter sports clinics in Snowmass as well, and has steadily seen his skiing ability improve.
“I’ve really advanced since coming here, and am building more confidence. I would recommend it to anyone,” Miller says.
The camaraderie that blossoms during veterans’ camps provides additional therapeutic benefits, says TASP’s Executive Director Courtney Stuecheli. “These veterans used to be
part of unit, and now they’re home and disbanded and pretty much flying solo. The camps give them the opportunity to come back together with other people who have experienced things the general population simply can’t relate to. Here, they’re able to overcome some of their challenges together, in a therapeutic environment.”
The challenges disabled veterans face can be staggering. Service members injured in combat are frequently dealing with more than one disability, and thus TASP’s staff of volunteer instructors (which numbers around 175) must constantly adapt to different situations. In a typical veteran’s group, disabilities can run the gamut, from traumatic brain injuries, neurological and nerve injuries, to amputations, visual impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, and seizure disorders – or any combination thereof.
“That’s how these camps differ from our regular, day-to-day lessons,” McGough explains. “Our typical participants aren’t normally dealing with multiple disabilities.”
TASP’s current veteran’s programs began in 2006, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Many participants are able to attend the annual Winter Adventure camp thanks to all-expenses-paid scholarships made possible through grants, sponsors, and year-round fundraising by TASP. The organization also offers a week-long summer program for recently injured service members, in which participants go fly fishing, rafting, hand cycling, rock climbing, and more.
Close to half of this year’s Winter Adventure Camp participants are from Colorado thanks to a TASP-initiated regional outreach program to VA centers statewide. The hope, says Stuecheli, is that veterans who live in Colorado and attend a TASP camp will return, and that TASP can play a role in facilitating active lifestyles for the region’s recently injured veterans.
“This experience provides the best change of scenery possible while offering a platform to open the minds of recently injured veterans to the possibilities that lie ahead,” she says.
McGough sees that evolution nearly every time he spends a day on the slopes with a wounded veteran.
“In almost every single case, by the end of the week the biggest word I hear is independence,” he says, describing that many disabled veterans’ day-to-day existence offers little opportunity for leaving home, traveling, or participating in sports or other activities. “Skiing itself is such an amazing sport,” he says. “It truly is individualized: Everyone is on the hill for themselves, making their own turns and progressing at their own rate. Getting out there and having to the chance to do those things for themselves, then drawing from those experiences once they go back home, really is therapy. It shows them that they can live their life for themselves again.”
Veteran’s Winter Adventure Camp and other TASP programs are made possible through the support of Telluride Ski and Golf, which provides lift tickets for instructors and volunteers, as well as Telluride Sports, which provides the organization with no-cost rental equipment.
For more information about TASP’s programs or to donate, visit their website at www.tellurideadaptivesports.org.