Wolfowitz Praises Volunteers Behind Vets Sports Clinic

By Donna Miles

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz thanks volunteer instructors at the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic for lending their talents to helping disabled veterans.

Photo by Cherie Thurlby / DoD Photo

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado – Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz praised the army of volunteers behind the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and their successes in helping disabled veterans confront new challenges and build self-confidence.

The deputy secretary, here for the 19th winter sports clinic, recognized “the extraordinary effort” the more than 500 volunteers put forward in orchestrating the six-day program for some 350 disabled veterans.

“They are an inspirational group,” Wolfowitz said of the volunteers during an interview with the American Forces Press Service. “And whenever you thank them, they say this is the best thing they do.”

Wolfowitz stopped by a meeting of the largest group of volunteers, an estimated 190 ski instructors from around the country, to thank them for using their “incredible skill” to motivate disabled veterans.

“I know why you do it,” the deputy secretary told the group April 5. “It’s an incredibly rewarding experience that pays back double or triple, to see (the clinic participants) respond and the effect it has on them.”

Rick Townsend, volunteer coordinator for the clinic for the past 11 years, said serving America’s disabled veterans is a labor of love for his volunteer staff, who typically return year after year to assist at the clinic.

In fact, Townsend said, there’s so little turnover in the volunteer force for the clinic that his desk drawer is full of business cards of people on an unofficial “waiting list” to offer their services.

“The biggest problem we have with our volunteers is that no one wants to drop out,” he said. “They are all committed volunteers.”

What makes them so committed, he said, is a shared dedication to disabled veterans. “All you have to do is come once and you see these people we’re here to support,” Townsend said of the veterans.

“All you need is for one veteran to thank you for being there, and it makes it all worthwhile. Once that happens, you’re hooked,” he said. “It’s easy to understand why a lot of these guys who keep coming back live for this.”

The volunteers serve a wide range of roles, from transporting clinic participants to laying ramps so all venues are handicapped accessible to providing media support to serving as coaches, team leaders and instructors.

Dennis Mullins, who has volunteered for the event for all but three or four of the clinics, called his job of team leader “probably the best job out here because you get to interact so closely with the participants” throughout the six-day schedule of activities.

“I get more from the clinic than I could possibly give back,” Mullins said. “It’s an opportunity to give back. It’s a wonderful, life-lifting experience to see these men and women out here, and it’s one small way that I can give back and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Erik Miller, a ski instructor at the Breckenridge (Colo.) Outdoor Education Center, returned to the winter sports clinic for the third year to teach bi-ski techniques to disabled veterans.

Miller said the gratification of the job is helping veterans break through boundaries and discover new capabilities. “It’s really great to watch veterans progress and do something they didn’t think they could do,” he said.

Medical professionals and instructors and coaches for activities ranging from snowmobiling to scuba diving to trap shooting make up the next-largest group of volunteers.

Mike Tadych, for example, volunteers at the Lewis Ice Rink in Aspen, Colo., where he and his fellow volunteers help disabled veterans participating in the winter sports clinic master the techniques of sled hockey.

“We do this just to help the guys out and do something for them,” Tadych said of the volunteers’ efforts.

Eighty-one-year-old Jeanie Gechter is among the longest-serving volunteers here, participating in the first winter sports clinic in 1986 and not missing one since.

Married for 57 years to a disabled Marine Corps veteran, Gechter said she has a soft spot in her heart for people with disabilities and serves in a wide variety of volunteer jobs to support them.

At the winter sports clinic, she and her fellow volunteers work from 6:15 a.m. until nearly 9 p.m. to ensure participants get breakfast, lunch, dinner and just about anything else they need. “We carry their trays and do anything else a disabled veteran needs us to do,” she said. “We kiss them; we hug them; we love them.”

Glenn Costie, chief engineer at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, has taken leave from work for the past three years to volunteer his serves as a “boot loader” at the clinic. Tall and strong, Costie stands at the bottom of the ski lift, helping load veterans in adaptive sit-skis on the chair lifts. Another boot loader rides with the veteran to the top of the lift and assists in offloading, he explained.

Costie said the opportunity to interact with the participants drives him to return to the clinic each year. “It’s so inspiring to see them be fearless despite their disabilities,” he said.

Costie’s wife, Tammy Thomas, has also worked at the clinic for the past four years, providing media support for participants’ hometown publications. Thomas said she never tires of hearing personal stories about their disabilities and their refusal to be kept down because of them.

“These guys are just amazing. I’m so impressed,” Thomas said. “It feels great to be a part of all of this.”

Mark Camillo, who taught self-defense classes at the clinic for the past 10 years before retiring from the Secret Service last spring, returned this year as a volunteer and representative of his new employer, Lockheed Martin Corporation, a corporate sponsor of the event.

“There’s a genuine need to help those veterans who served our nation as they turn the corner and see that they can succeed,” Camillo said. “When they were in uniform, they were prepared to defend the country. Now we need to be sure we’re prepared to help them.”

Celebrities Laud, Encourage Disabled Vets

By Donna Miles

Actress Bo Derek jokes with Jaime Garcia, a first-time participant in the winter sports clinic.

Photo by Donna Miles / DoD Photo

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado — Actress Bo Derek said she wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to mingle with more than 350 disabled veterans gathered here at the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

“ It’s such a positive, happy experience, and it’s so wonderful to see all the attention going to the veterans who deserve it so much,” said Derek, national honorary chairwoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs National Rehabilitation Special Events and a five-time participant in the winter sports clinic.

The actress, best known from the movie “10,” chatted and posed for photos with the veterans during a “Taste of Snowmass” event in which local chefs dished up their culinary specialties for clinic participants. The event was part of the opening activities for a six-day program that encourages veterans to push their limits and discover their capabilities through a variety of winter sports.

“I feel like the lucky American who gets to say, ‘Thank you,” to the veterans for their service, Derek told the American Forces Press Service at the event. “Everybody wants to say, ‘Thank you,’ but not everyone gets the opportunity.”

Among veterans Derek chatted with at the event was Jaime Garcia, a former Navy petty officer who suffered a spinal injury in 1999 and is attending his first winter sports clinic.

Grinning ear to ear after chatting with Derek, Garcia declared his intentions for the days ahead. “I want to take away memories, to meet new people, and to just have fun,” he said.

This year’s event features a star-studded cast. Grammy award-winning singers Vince Gill and Amy Grant will give a private concert, and up-and-coming country singer Ty Nelson performed a patriotic tribute during the opening ceremonies April 3.

Also during the opening ceremony, Rudy Ruettinger, of Notre Dame football fame and the inspiration for the movie “Rudy,” urged the veterans to look beyond their disabilities and “go for your dreams.”

Ruettinger, an inspirational speaker, told the veterans of the power of passion and urged them to apply it to their lives. “When you have passion, your attitude changes,” he said. “You see life differently.”

He praised the winter sports clinic participants for their courage and determination in overcoming their disabilities. “You are an inspiration by who you are,” he said.