Wounded veterans overcome ski slopes at Seven Springs
With her family crowded around her on a sunny February morning at Seven Springs Mountain Resort's base lodge. Tiffany Boon quietly proclaimed victory.
“I made it to the mountaintop and came down,” she said.
While almost everyone who goes up the mountain at the Somerset County resort eventually comes down, for Boon, 44, a petite, soft-spoken wounded veteran from Silver Spring, Md., who uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her right arm, it was a hard-fought battle.
Help came from the Wound Warrior Patrol, a Carlisle-based all-volunteer group marking its fifth year of giving wounded veterans and their families a week at Seven Springs to experience the exhilaration of skiing.
Last week, 15 veterans participated in the event underwritten in part by the resort, which provides access to all amenities — from skiing and snow tubing to trap shooting and spa treatments.
It's just one of a growing number of therapeutic sports programs across the nation in which the population of disabled veterans continues to increase, nearly doubling to 5.5 million since 2001, according to census figures.
At Seven Springs, high-tech “sit-skis” allow disabled veterans to speed down the mountain on a device balanced by small outrigger skis while an instructor follows behind, guiding them.
The Wounded Warrior Patrol — no relation to the national Wounded Warrior Project — began several years ago when a small group of veterans, many members of the National Ski Patrol, decided to give back to those living with the wounds of war.
In conjunction with the resort and Pittsburgh-based Three Rivers Adaptive Sports, all of the veterans' expenses are covered.
While most of the vets are reluctant to relive the stories of how they were wounded, they are happy to speak about their triumphs on the slopes.
Hearing those conversations is the most uplifting gift the program's volunteers, who gather from Central and Western Pennsylvania, can imagine receiving.
“In this place, it's a simple ‘thank you' (is all that's needed),” said Joe Dantonio of Irwin, as he and other volunteers outfitted the veterans for their first run down the mountain Monday.
For many, overcoming the mountain fuels their determination to seek other challenges.
Brandon Boyd, 41, of Lovettsville, Va., suffered spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries with the Army in Iraq and now must rely on a wheelchair.
“The freedom to be able to accomplish something I haven't been able to do on my own is great. Now I want to go skydiving,” said Boyd, who brought his wife, Norma, and three daughters to Seven Springs.
Past participants sometimes return as volunteers.
Jen Mason, 51, of Rochester, N.Y., attended the Wounded Warrior Patrol's ski week three years ago.
A Navy veteran, she learned to ski when she was 5 and skied mountains all over the world before a service-related injury and then multiple sclerosis left her in a wheelchair.
“I was a stand-up skier. Now I'm a sit-skier,” Mason said. “The first time I went skiing on the sit-ski, I just sat there and cried. It's wonderful. It's such a freeing sport.”
She now mentors other participants in the program, encouraging them to make their first runs down the mountain.
When Boon was worried about the cold, it was Mason who offered a blanket a friend made for her, specially designed to fit over a sit-ski.
“You can't pay it back. You can never go back, but you can always pay it forward. I try to encourage people constantly to get out and tell them, ‘You can do this,' ” said Mason, now training to qualify for the U.S. Paralympics in rowing.
Wounded Warrior Patrol founder and retired Army Maj. Chris Raup of Carlisle said nothing can erase the physical and emotional scars of war.
But programs such as his can help veterans and their families heal while learning skills and building friendships.
Disabled veteran Rory Cooper, chairman of the rehabilitation science and technology department at the University of Pittsburgh, said these programs are essential.
“Sport is a great tool for improving the psycho-social outlook, not only for the veterans themselves, but also the way other people perceive them,” said Cooper. “When you acquire an injury or disability, your own perception of self changes. And sports allow you to develop skills, coordination and strength, particularly when you can be with other people with similar experiences.”
Kortney Clemons, 35, is among those veterans fighting back and winning.
Clemons, who lost a leg at the knee in Iraq, traveled to the resort as keynote speaker for the Wounded Warrior Patrol. He became an elite parathlete, competing in track and field events, while studying at Penn State University.
Clemons, now living in Texas and developing educational programs for vets, sped down the mountain, standing on a single ski.
Ken “Corky” Graf, a surgeon at a veterans hospital in Lebanon County and member of the National Ski Patrol, reviews applicants for the local event. Persuading veterans to participate is often his toughest task.
“They don't want help, so we've learned to work around that and reach out through their wives and friends,” Graf said.
The surgeon saw the misery of war up close and personal after 9/11, when at 58, he left his surgical practice to enlist in the Army as a trauma surgeon.
A full colonel, Graf served two tours of duty in Iraq, one at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and most recently with a forward surgical team near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“What I saw there was horrific,” he said.
“This sort of brings things full circle for me,” Graf said, leaning on his skis as he waited for a team of adaptive skiers to get off the lifts at Seven Springs.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].