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Learning together: Veterans rebuild skills at Wintergreen program

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Even after Chadd Jackson returned to the United States from Iraq, he felt far away from his family.

With wounds to his face and upper body from an improvised explosive device, the Marine was taken to Bethesda, Md. in 2009.

On Sunday, sitting next to his 8-year-old son, Bladen, who was drinking hot chocolate after a morning of snowboarding on the final day of Wintergreen Adaptive Sports’ Warriors Weekend, the 40-year-old related his service, wounds and treatment.

For the 10th year, Adaptive Sports has welcomed soldiers and their families to Wintergreen Resort with free lift tickets, equipment and lodging to continue treating the wounds doctors cannot always heal.

Most, like the Jacksons who live in Jacksonville, N.C., come from around the East Coast. Some of the 31 retired and active soldiers and their families, including groups from Fort Bragg, N.C., Hampton and the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, were first-time participants in winter sports. Others learned to do old activities in a new way.

The group included double- and single-amputees and people with traumatic brain injuries, nerve damage and post traumatic stress disorder.

With memory loss and permanent nerve damage to his shoulder and arm, Jackson visited a similar event with his family after being discharged from the hospital five years ago.

He had skied as a kid, having been born in Colorado where he still has family, but his injuries had undermined his balance.

“With all the nerve damage to the shoulder, the arm, I couldn’t see myself doing it,” he said.

But someone at the event suggested snowboarding. Instructors helped him find his knack alongside his son, Colton, who was 9 at the time.

Picking up the new hobby with his wife, sons and daughter is particularly important to the Marine who served two tours in Iraq in his 20 years in the Corps because the physical miles created an emotional distance between him and his family.

“That bridge is so long and ... with each deployment that gap gets further and further,” Jackson said. “You’ve been used to doing things on your own when you’re in the military, but when you come back and retire, you need to learn how to be in a family again.”

Similar events helped ease that curve.

“Just learning something together,” brought Colton closer to his dad, the 14-year-old said.

In the same Wintergreen Resort room where the Jacksons warmed, little girls in pink and turquoise snow jackets scurried around chairs piled with camouflage and solid-color backpacks while some of the younger members of the Adaptive Sports all-volunteer force looked after them as their parents skied.

Leaning against one of those chairs a set of prosthetic legs, one that would attach below the hip and one below the knee, stood in blue, gray and lime-green running shoes. Their owner had switched to a mono-ski for the afternoon, one of several tools available for those with physical disabilities.

Matthew Staton, an Adaptive Sports instructor and also a retired veteran who almost lost a leg because of injuries sustained in Iraq, said the weekend is about adaptation, transition, camaraderie and fun.

Staton served in the Army from 1999 to 2007 after he “took an AK47 round directly to the left hip.”

He was introduced to Disabled Sports USA, the national group of which Wintergreen Adaptive Sports is a chapter, in Breckenridge, Colo. in 2010.

Having never skied before, he worked with instructors to adjust standard techniques to handle with the diminished feeling in his leg.

“For me it was trying to get back to the great out of doors,” said the Madison Heights native, who grew up fishing, canoeing and hiking.

The next year, he became certified as an adaptive skiing instructor to help his fellow veterans with their own challenges.

As soldiers, he said, these men and women are trained to act. When they lose use of body parts and return home to become civilians, they’re not sure what to do.

“There’s that point of time … you’re trying to figure, ‘What is my life going to be like?’ ” he said.

Learning a new hobby, such as skiing, can harness soldierly instincts of action, setting off momentum in their everyday lives.

“You get out there, you’re doing something new and you attack it,” he said.

At Warriors Weekend and similar events, soldiers rediscover old strengths and new tools with veterans who might be further along in their transition.

While Staton is able to use two standard skis, others use a mono ski — a broad, centered plank with a lifted seat. Instead of pointed poles, riders use outriggers, which have a flat end to guide and balance. Outriggers also can be used by those on standard skis for the same purpose.

After everyone arrived Friday, they were fitted with specialized equipment, which can be adjusted individually.

“It gives us a realization that we can do new things and we can do some of the things we used to do,” Staton said, but “you just may use a different piece of equipment.”

While the Warriors Weekend is Adaptive Sports’ marquee event, the nonprofit focuses on developing independence all year.

Executive Director Dave Shreve said volunteers are available by schedule seven days per week “for persons with disabilities, all types and ages.”

Anyone interested can schedule from among 100 volunteer instructors for winter sports, including skiing and snowboarding, and also canoeing and kayaking in the summer free of charge. Weekdays are wide open, he said.
 

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