Sports Camp Challenges Veterans

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Marine veteran Joyce Ralph sometimes stays at home in Massachusetts instead of going for a bike ride or doing other things she likes to do. She feels too anxious because of her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army veteran Paul Miosek sometimes feels isolated at his home in New York. No one else he knows is in a wheelchair.
The two were among a group of about 50 veterans who took part in July in the Veterans Affairs New England Summer Sports Clinic in Rhode Island. For a week, they kayaked, water skied, cycled and sailed – activities designed to get them and other veterans thinking more about what they can than can’t do.

“This gives me a chance, with my anxiety, to push myself a little further, to realize there are safe places in the world,” said Ralph, 52, of Halifax, Massachusetts.

The veterans ranged in age from their 20s to 80s. The rehabilitation clinic is open to veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations, vision loss, mental health problems and other disabilities.

Miosek (pronounced MY’-sak), 47, of Scotia, New York, lost both legs in 1990 when his head hit a power cable as he stood atop an armored vehicle in Germany, then fell 20 feet.

Meeting other veterans at the clinic with similar injuries made him feel he’s not alone.

“I feel a kinship toward them, since we are in that boat together,” he said. “While in service, we faced a lot of obstacles that we overcame. Now that I’m a disabled veteran, and with other disabled veterans, there are things that we can overcome together, as well.”

In Coventry, Rhode Island, VA volunteers and water ski instructors set up different ways veterans could ski depending on their needs, from a sling-like seat in the center of a wide ski to a three-person tube.

Navy veteran Raquel “Rachel” Ardin uses a wheelchair most of the time. Ardin, 62, of North Hartland, Vermont, was serving in Greece when she broke her neck falling out of a bunk in 1976. She taught herself to walk again, but the scar tissue from her injury began causing problems several years ago.

During her first run of the day, and her first time ever on water skis, Ardin whooped the whole way. The crowd of volunteers and fellow veterans on shore clapped and cheered.

Afterward, Ardin told the volunteers, “You made my day. You made my life!”

“I want to cry, I’m so happy,” she told them. “Thank you, guys!”

The sports clinic is modeled after the VA’s national adaptive sports program, in which veterans nationwide compete in games. The VA Boston Healthcare System runs it, and the Providence VA Medical Center hosts it.

“Some of the more traditional activities that occur in VA hospitals, bingo, card playing, those sorts of things, while those are nice, we had a young generation that came out of the battlefield,” said Richard Leeman, assistant chief of voluntary services in Boston. “They wanted to do the things they did prior to their injury.”

There’s also a winter sports clinic for skiing and snowboarding at Mount Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire.

This was the seventh year of the summer clinic and the third time the Providence medical center has hosted it. The VA worked with many local groups to organize the activities.

“They pushed themselves to a new limit that they now know they can do,” said Susan MacKenzie, the medical center’s director. “They have confidence that they can set goals for themselves and move forward, not just in sports but in any part of their life.”

Miosek said he “feels alive” at the clinic.

“I’m able to get the energy out and do the things that I can’t do at home,” he said. “I use that energy all year long, to kind of let go and go for it.”

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