Video: A Memorial Day Tribute

By MSNBC Correspondent
updated 5/27/2005 11:23:58 PM ET 2005-05-28T03:23:58

In an hour-long special to air this Memorial Day Monday, May 30, 2005, at 9 p.m. ET, MSNBC follows the stories of disabled American veterans. The broadcast is a follow-up to Shuster's "For the Brave" series that began airing on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" in April 2005. The special will feature veterans from World War II to the Iraqi War as they face physical challenges and as they overcome the emotional scars of war.

Last December, Hardball spent several days with disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington. Last month, some of those same amputees were among the 350 disabled military veterans who participated in a winter sports clinic. It was an inspiring and transforming week.

A life without a limb
Oscar Olguin is 19-years-old. About six months ago in Iraq, an insurgent bomb ripped apart his right leg.

"I was conscious the whole time, which was kind of bad," Olguin recounts. "I saw my boot on the floor, and it looked like my boot had just tipped over and fallen on the floor."

Olguin had never imagined life without a limb.

Seven months ago, Casey Owens wasn’t sure when he lost both legs whether or not he would live at all.  "We hit a double stacked anti-tank mine," he says. "It blew me through the roof and threw me about 30 feet."

And last summer, doctors thought Dawn Halfaker wouldn’t survive, much less snowboard, after an Iraqi grenade severed her arm. It was the arm she had relied on as a basketball star at West Point.  "It’s still very sensitive, it’s you know, it’s basically sheer bone," she describes.  "There’s not any muscle or fat in that area, so, it’s really painful."

But it’s a pain, both physical and mental, that other disabled veterans seem to understand.

So last April, in Snowmass Village, Colorado, 350 veterans representing every conflict since World War II joined together for a winter sports clinic.

In addition to skiing, they played sled hockey,  shot clay pigeons, and climbed rock walls.

"It boosts their morale, boosts their character, and lets them know that they can do stuff and overcome those obstacles that they have in their life," says Adrian Maldonado, a Veterans Association outreach specialist.

Jim Sursley lost three limbs in Vietnam and remembers the questions he used to ask: "Will you be ever be able to be employed? Will someone love you? Will you be able to be married and have children and just lead a normal life?" 

"As time progresses, to have these kinds of events to challenge you," says Sursley. "It just reaffirms that those things are certainly possible and that the sky is the limit as to what you can possibly achieve."

All disabled veterans can participate, regardless of their level of disability. At the end of the day, the conversations are like those at any other ski resort, like, "Are you doing the jumps yet?"

An important step
The clinic, now in it’s 19th year, has grown thanks to sponsors and volunteers. Their rejuvenated spirits are often difficult to talk about. The reality is that everybody seems to know these veterans still face setbacks.   Some have tough rehab sessions ahead or are especially vulnerable to loneliness and depression.

But the week marks an important step.

"I never did this before," says Olguin. "I never skied before. Now I’m going everywhere.  Going to concerts, dancing in mosh pits, going to clubs.  Life isn’t over. I just lost a leg."

Pulling together a clinic like this requires instructors and support staff. Nearly all of the 700 at this event paid their own way. Many of the support staffers are disabled American veterans whose stories are just as inspiring as the first time participants. 

Rising from the anger
20 years ago, the Coast Guard aircraft Christopher Devlin Young was in crashed. Young was paralyzed from the waist down.

"I spent those first couple of years being very angry and not knowing what to do, not knowing what kind of direction I wanted my life to be," says Young. "And thinking of myself as half a man, because I was paralyzed, didn’t realize there were things I could do."

Therapists sent Young to the very first National Disabled Veterans’ Winter Sports Clinic where he went skiing.

"I realized on my second turn on my first day that I had some control back," he says. "I had exhiliration, I had the adrenaline back in my life.  And I had something that could get me past the rough times."

It was also something that Young grew to love.  And now, he is the reigning World Cup Champion in the Mono Ski Super Giant Slalom. But he says the most important victory, for all disabled veterans, comes in the lesson this clinic teaches about independence.

"Use that energy, use that skill that we’ve learned to transfer back into our lives and make the wheel chair not the controlling factor in my life.  I control the wheel chair.  The wheel chair doesn’t control me anymore."

Instructor Rob Reynolds doesn’t use a chair at all.  At first glance, he seems to have no disabilities.   

But Reynolds is legally a paraplegic. He ruined his back on a parachute jump. "As a result of my L-5 injury, I had a spinal stimulator implant put into me with ledes put into my 12 area that send stimulation for the pain."

It wasn’t easy.  In the beginning, most sports were out of the question for Reynolds.

"I really took it hard at the beginning because I was very athletic and that was all gone at that point."

Like Christopher Young, Reynolds had never been skiing.  But 12 years ago he attended a National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and he hasn’t looked back since.

Reynolds repeats the mantra: "It’s about the ability, not the disability."

And those are the words the 350 participants hear from instructors over and over.

Joe Hineman is 82 years old.  He lost his left leg during World War II. Thanks to this annual event, Hineman learned to ski at age 70. He started playing hockey three years ago at age 79.

Hockey is not just a game, it’s alesson that is passed on from veteran to veteran.

Michael Kuhn is the former navy man was injured in a car accident in 1998. For 3 years, Michael has been coming to the national disabled veteran’s winter sports clinic.

The experiences here have helped his rehabilitation... and his self esteem.

As these veterans work on their abilities, all they say they need is the right equipment, a little patience from the rest of us... and that we listen carefully.

David Shuster is a Hardball correspondent. 'Hardball' airs weeknights at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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