Wounded veterans hit Utah slopes for therapy
On Wednesday, freedom from pain was just a ride away.
For disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, snowboarding, skiing and snowshoeing can be life-changing therapy, particularly if they do it together.
"I was grinning from ear to ear," said Paula Litch, a former Army staff sergeant who was seriously injured in a 2008 car-bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. She suffered severe leg injuries, as well as head and spinal injuries.
"This is the first time I've done anything [since the explosion]," said the lifelong skier from Issaquah, Wash.
That's why Arlington, Va.-based World T.E.A.M. Sports teamed up with Wasatch Adaptive Sports and Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort to host what they call Soldiers to the Summit. The three-day event, which ends Thursday, is aimed at getting "wounded warriors" out on the slopes.
Many injured vets and those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder find it difficult to get out of the house, let alone live normal lives. Soldiers to the Summit, said Kim Wapinski of World T.E.A.M. Sports, is aimed at energizing them.
"It's just being out in the fresh air and being active, meeting people who have been in the military, making friends and building community," she said. "We know everyone wants to get out and do things."
For the 15 vets, and their family members and caregivers who gathered in Little Cottonwood Canyon this week, it's been a tough road back from military service.
Paula Litch's eyes welled up, and tears spilled down her cheeks as she recalled her ordeal.
"When you're an NCO [non-commissioned officer] you're the backbone of the Army," she said. "When you can't be tough any more, it's very humbling."
Her husband, Michael Litch, explained that since the car-bombing, their lives have been defined by what she can't do.
"This has been a gift for her to get out there and see what she can do," he said. "I'm very proud of her and hope this opens the door to more activity."
The program is free for participating veterans, said Peter Mandler, of Wasatch Adaptive Sports, which organized the event. Hotels at Snowbird donated rooms and American Airlines provided transportation. Food and lessons are provided with the help of many other donors, he said.
"We're a big team up here," he said. "We could never do this by ourselves."
The program really helps, said Katherine Ragazzino, a former Marine staff sergeant who suffered a severe head injury in a 2009 Humvee accident in Iraq. When she's on the mountain in a sit-ski device, she explained, "I don't feel my pain."
"When I'm skiing, I feel like I'm using the gifts that were given to me," she said. "We inspire each other," she said of her colleagues.
Ragazzino also suffers from PTSD and cannot work. After spending 18 months recuperating in a San Diego, Calif., hospital she became homeless. Her former superior, 1st Sgt. Carl W. Tyler, learned of her situation and asked his wife, Michelle Tyler, a registered nurse, to help.
Michelle found Ragazzino living in her car and brought her home. The former Marine now lives with the Tylers, and Michelle Tyler has been designated by the Veterans Administration as Ragazzino's official caregiver.
Michelle Tyler, who accompanied Ragazzino to Snowbird, urges her to get out of the house and participate in programs like those offered by World T.E.A.M. Sports. "It's fun," Michelle said, "for both of us."
The experience hopefully will carry over so that disabled vets get out more often and seek new activities, said Snowbird ski patroller Mark Fisher, who is a veteran and a program instructor.
"We tell them we'll give them a mountain experience that will last a lifetime," he said. "But we hope they come back on their own."
Dane Kaimuloa has served in the Navy, the Army Reserve and the Army. He returned from Iraq in late 2006 with an extreme case of PTSD. When he's down, he feels hopelessness and despair.
"I have a number I can call if I think I'm going to hurt myself," he said Wednesday at Snowbird. "This is like a temporary fix. I'm having fun and I'm sane."
Kaimuloa doesn't like to leave his house without his caregiver, Ruthie Porter, who accompanied him to Utah from his California home. He sometimes loses control in public and has gotten in trouble with police.
"One word, total anger," he said of his condition. He lost his wife and children because of it, he explained.
"The best thing about [the program] is I get to meet other vets we're in the same boat and have fun,"he said. "I couldn't pay for this on my own. This is just great."
Although their stories are painful, nobody was complaining.
Asked if she would serve her country again, Ragazzino didn't hesitate. "I'd do it in a second."
"I don't look at it as a sacrifice," she said. "For those who go out and serve their country, we see it as a calling. It's not a burden. It's like, 'why wouldn't we?' "
O For information about World T.E.A.M. Sports > http://www.worldteamsports.org
For information on Wasatch Adaptive Sports > http://www.wasatchadaptivesports.org