OUT: Sunday Column March 29, 2009

Wounded vets get chance at sport during winter clinic

Today marks the start of the 23rd annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass, an event that’s much larger than even its cumbersome name may imply.

Last year, the event attracted nearly 400 participating veterans from around the country, all of them different yet all sharing one thing: a life-changing injury suffered while serving our country in the military.

One might hope that someday this country won’t be engaged in conflicts around the world, but until that day comes, there will be disabled veterans looking for an opportunity to downhill and cross-country ski, snowmobile, snowshoe, fence, golf and rock climb and participate in the many sports offered during the Winter Sports Clinic, which this year runs through April 3.

Veterans include those who served during World War II, whom we’re losing at the rate of about 1,000 per day according to the Veterans Administration, to those recently injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Last year there were 399 veterans here and this year we’ll top 400, easy,” said Sandy Trombetta, originator of the winter sports clinic and director of recreation therapy at the Grand Junction Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.  “It’s kind of overwhelming.”

Trombetta and his small staff, including Theresa Parks and recreational therapist Matt Lucas, have a “tiger by the tail,” but it’s a tiger held with love and respect.

“We’re really blessed to be here in Grand Junction where they really support their vets,” said Trombetta on Monday during a short break in what’s likely his busiest week of the year.

The Grand Junction VA hospital is one of the smaller medical centers in the country, but somehow it manages each year to pull off what’s grown into the nation’s largest veteran winter clinic.

“We’re small but we’re huge,” said Trombetta, laughing at his own oxymoron. “Because we’re so experienced and so diverse, we have the equipment other programs don’t have.

We’re ahead of the curve in recreational therapy and that’s a tremendous service to our veterans.”

Trombetta said he expects around 100 wounded veterans from current conflicts to participate in the clinic, and for many of them the trip to Snowmass will be their first venture out of the hospital.

“You see it in their eyes,” he said. “These kids, and most of them are just kids, are coming here with life-changing injuries and they’re wondering, “‘What am I doing here?’ ”

It’s the support and experience shown by returning veterans that is the most-valuable part of the week-long clinic, Trombetta said.

“The older veterans show these young men and women that support so they can return home to live strong, healthy lives,” Trombetta said.

More than 200 certified ski instructors donate their time to the veterans’ clinic, but skiing is only part of the activities. There also are fly-fishing trips, snorkeling, snowmobiling and lots of banging around on the trap range.

Trombetta recently purchased 1,800 rounds of ammunition for the week of shooting events at the Roaring Fork Trap Club, one of the clinic’s more-popular off-snow venues.

“That’s a crazy amount of ammo,” he said. “But the vets really love this event, as you can imagine.”

Among the outreach programs coming from the Winter Sports Clinic is what Trombetta called the “Sports Plus” program, which allows disabled vets to try out adaptive equipment before purchasing it.

The VA supplies up-to-date equipment to qualified vets, who can see whether the equipment suits them or fits their needs.

If the fit and price is right, the VA then assists the vet in purchasing the equipment for his or her personal use.

Trombetta started what would become the Winter Sports Clinic more than 25 years ago when he took a veteran skiing at Powderhorn Resort. The word got out, more vets demanded a chance to experience winter’s finest sport, and by 1987, the first official Winter
Sports Clinic attracted 90 participants.

It has more than quadrupled but the message has stayed the same: Respect and support the veterans, and show them a good time.

Which never has been much of a problem, as noted last year by Air Force veteran Randy Sirbaugh of Grand Junction.

“If you don’t have a good time at the Winter Sports Clinic, you better check your pulse,” Sirbaugh said.


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