Winter Park: Program salutes veterans with time on the slopes | SkyHiNews.com

Winter Park: Program salutes veterans with time on the slopes

Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News

Craig Chavez’s face is entirely reconstructed with titanium plates.

When a bomb detonated under his feet in Iraq ” launching him into the air and severing multiple parts of his body ” his face was crushed, and he lost his left eye.

The blast left him legally blind and disfigured, but the wounded soldier fought back, and survived.

A few weeks ago, during his visit to Winter Park, Chavez, 27, faced another challenge: Snowboarding.

Putting his past behind him, he was no longer a soldier in Iraq; he was a snowboarder, standing on his board for the first time since his injuries, trusting his instructor as she led him down Wilson’s Way, a beginner’s run at Winter Park Resort.

Although Chavez has snowboarded for five seasons, this was his first winter riding almost blind. He was nervous, he admitted, and anxious about leaving his family and friends ” his primary support system ” behind in Southern California.

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But Chavez found another support group within the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), through an annual program called Salute to Troops. The four-day program is a chance for U.S. military veterans to spend time together doing various group activities, such as skiing, snowboarding and sleigh rides. It’s a chance to form friendships, gain confidence, and recapture skills that some thought couldn’t be recovered.

Chavez didn’t know if he would ever snowboard again, but there he was, buttoned up from head to toe, the sun on his back and the fresh air stinging his nostrils. He tells people his face is made of titanium, but evidently he also has nerves of steel.

“It was a big deal coming here … first time almost blind. It was challenging,” Chavez said, standing inside the NSCD equipment room after a day of snowboarding. “But I had an awesome instructor. She had what I needed ” patience. To get me back on my feet.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“It’s a blessing just to be alive.”

Chavez was one of the dozen or so veterans who stayed in Winter Park two weeks ago during Salute to Troops, which is in its third year and has remained small compared with other veteran retreats.

But it’s that small group setting that allows for more intimate activities ” for instance, one evening Hal O’Leary, founder of NSCD, invited the veterans to his home in Fraser for a home-cooked meal. Another evening was spent sleigh riding and roasting marshmallows with Dashing thru the Snow, a winter outfit in the Fraser Valley.

Beth Fox, NSCD’s operations manager, believes the program will remain a small event “so people can create true and lasting relationships.”

“I feel it has different therapeutic values than big events,” she added. “The idea is for these folks to get together and not only recreate, but also communicate with a peer group, and be together.”

Veterans such as John McCarthy and Peter Sinsel enjoy the smaller group activities because it allows them to spend time at their leisure. The two friends, who met in a hospital in Denver, have known each other for years.

After their second day of skiing, they parked themselves next to the NSCD lessons desk and played a game of checkers.

McCarthy, 65, sat in a wheelchair across from Sinsel as he explained the rules of the game to his longtime friend. McCarthy had his first massive MS attack after he served in the Vietnam war ” in 1964, when an intense cramp dislocated his jaw and shoulder. When he was diagnosed, he was shocked.

“They told me I had MS, and I said I’d never heard of it so I couldn’t have it,” McCarthy said, chuckling.

The doctors told McCarthy he would never walk again, and he was forced to give up long walks and backcountry hikes. But he never gave up skiing. He has been a mono-skier since 1992, a downhill sport that allows skiing without the use of legs. Regaining the ability to ski was a big step toward normalcy for McCarthy.

“I like the feeling when the skiing (conditions) are just right. I enjoy the friendships … I feel good about myself,” McCarthy said. “Sports is one of the many paths to regain a normal life.”

NSCD veterans event expands into summer

Fox admitted the Salute to Troops event was difficult to fund in the beginning, but since then it has gained tremendous support from the community, she said. Local businesses and organizations such as Dashing thru the Snow, Beaver Village, Home James, Winter Park Central Reservations and the Fraser River Valley Lions Club have donated time and resources to make the event happen. And thanks to the growth in popularity, the Salute to Troops event will have its first summer program in June 2008, she added.

Fox is pleased at the program’s success, which is not only therapeutic physically, she explained, but also offers a chance for socialization. The men and women come from all over the country, ranging in age from 22 to 65; some already understand the hardships associated with their injuries and can share advice with those who were recently injured.

“It’s a chance to share needs and frustrations with others who understand,” Fox added.

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