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Extreme Rehabilitation

Second Lt. Doug Pringle was stunned when a group of disabled World War II veterans walked into his room at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco in November 1968 and invited him to go ski-ing. With one leg severed and the other leg shattered by a North Vietnamese grenade just five months earlier, Pringle quickly refused.

He reconsidered after his buddies came back from their first outing with stories of hanging out in bars with beautiful women. Pringle's doctor soon drove him to Soda Springs, near Lake Tahoe, where a one-legged veteran started teaching him to ski.

"It was a life-changing experience for me," Pringle says. "It started me thinking about what I could do, not what I couldn't do."

Pringle's instructors were members of the 10th Mountain Division who found ways to keep skiing after losing limbs and suffering other wounds during World War II. They formed the National Amputee Skiers Association, now Disabled Sports USA, to reach out to severely wounded Vietnam War veterans. Pringle was one of their first students. In the ensuing 40 years, their efforts helped spawn specialized equipment, teaching techniques and similar groups across the country that enable just about everyone to participate.

Today, thanks to its destination-resort status and vigorous community support, Sun Valley, Idaho, is home to two such sports-therapy programs. They are transforming the lives of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have suffered severe injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We help them improve their physical skills, but we also help them build their self-confidence and self-esteem, which leads to a sense of purpose and passion in life," says Tom Iselin, executive director of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. "This leads to a belief in self and hope and improves their relationships with their families, their peers and their community. It also leads to better performance at work and in school, and helps them handle the challenge of their disability and cope with combat-related stress."

With two recreational therapists on staff and a network of 200 volunteers, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports teaches U.S. servicemembers and a member of their family - often a spouse - alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, sled hockey and a full complement of summer sports, ranging from fly fishing to mountain biking. Most instruction is one on one.

"Our job is to be a little bit of a psychologist and a little bit of a detective," Iselin explains. "As a detective we assess the person's physical aspects - how they walk, their strength. As a psychologist we assess what's going on in the per-son's head - are they afraid of heights or speed?"

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports uses this information to match the servicemember with the appropriate adaptive equip-ment, the appropriate instructor, and the appropriate ski run or fishing stream.

Severely wounded U.S. servicemembers are recruited from major military medical installations, including the Military Severely Injured Center, the National Naval Medical Center, Brooke Army Medical Center and VA hospitals. Funding - about $5,000 per couple - comes from private donors and foundations. The programs typically run a week in duration. By the end of the third day, "they begin to realize their life isn't over and that they are going to be able to do this," says Marc Mast, who runs another Sun Valley rehabilitative endeavor, the Wood River Ability Program.

The results are dramatic.

"You take them up on a ski hill, put a set of skis on them, and by the end of the week they are a different person," says retired Army Col. Ed McGowan, one of many American Legion members who works as a volunteer for both programs. "They get the benefit of achieving something they thought they would never be able to do."

"I think the most important benefit is the psychological lift," adds Maurice Charlat, commander of American Legion Post 115 in Ketchum, which also provides financial support for the Wood River Ability Program and Sun Valley Adap-tive Sports. "In the final analysis, they are looking at themselves as whole, competent people, no matter what prosthetic device they are wearing."

Part of the healing is about being in motion again, especially for servicemembers whose mobility is hampered as a result of their wounds.

"When you are on the ski hill, you have freedom, speed and motion that you don't experience anywhere else in your life," Pringle says. "The rest of the time you are struggling to get over the curb, get up the stairs or just get into the rest-room."

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans also benefit from impressive developments in sports equipment. During the Viet-nam era, for example, Pringle was outfitted with the equivalent of a "peg leg," he says, and there was no way to accommodate people who used wheelchairs. Today, microprocessors and high-tech materials have led to prosthetics that come closer to matching the abilities of natural limbs. And "sit skis" allow paraplegics to both downhill and cross-country ski.

Such equipment enabled Army Spc. Andy Soule to learn Nordic skiing through the Wood River Ability Program in 2006 and earn a spot on the U.S. Disabled Cross Country Ski Team with his impressive performance at the 2007 World Cup races.

In the end, however, the camaraderie today's wounded warriors find on Sun Valley's ski slopes is as important as any other element. "These groups of veterans help each other," Mast says. "They realize they aren't alone in the world."

 

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