Seeing veteran wellness in the high peaks of Colorado: A report from the hockey rink

Seeing veteran wellness in the high peaks of Colorado: A report from the hockey rink

By Margaret C. Harrell

Best Defense department of veterans’ issues

At the Center for a New American Security, much of our research on veteran employment and wellness faces a conundrum — how do we address the needs of American veterans without portraying them as needy? Our current research on veteran employment emphasizes the business case for hiring veterans, as opposed to an argument to hire veterans for patriotic or "pay-back" reasons. Most of our work underscores that most veterans are not only "fine," they are excelling at civilian life. And our recently released report on veteran wellness, Well After Service: Veteran Reintegration and American Communities, stresses that while some veterans may have returned home physically or psychologically different, almost all veterans can aspire to wellness. 

Nothing emphasized veteran wellness more than the 26th annual National Disabled Veteran Winter Sports Clinic (NDVWSC), convened March 30-April 6, 2012 at Snowmass Village, Colorado. Four hundred disabled veterans gathered to conquer the mountain. Downhill and cross-country skiing, curling, sled hockey, rock climbing, scuba, and kayaking comprised the agenda. While some veterans were repeat attendees, others faced the challenges anew.

My personal favorite event was sled hockey. While not a veteran, this hockey mom eagerly "padded up," donned a helmet, grabbed two very short hockey sticks, and strapped myself, legs extended, into a small sled with blades under my seat. Some players were aided by able-bodied skaters, but the rest of us propelled ourselves with the metal grabbers at the "other" end of our hockey sticks, in awe of anyone who could puck handle and advance at the same time. I quickly forgot which of my teammates were able-bodied. Intensely physical and aggressive, sled hockey requires fierce coordination and balance, so my blue number #11 jersey spent a disproportionate amount of time laying on the ice while I tried to right my sled.

While some veterans were attempting new adventures, Chris Devlin-Young, a Coast Guard veteran and paraplegic who learned to ski at the first winter sports clinic, was competing in the 2012 U.S. Adaptive Alpine National Championships and NorAm, one ski mountain away.  In the 26 years since he learned to ski at the first NDVWSC, Chris has earned 4 Paralympic medals, 8 World Championship medals, 4 World Cup Championships, and an X Games gold medal. When not skiing his own events, Chris was at the sports clinic, encouraging and inspiring other veterans, and providing autographs on a photograph inscribed, "They never said it would be easy. They only said it would be worth it."

Traditional definitions of wellness presume the absence of physical infirmity as a prerequisite. But the veterans who conquered new physical challenges, and who found outlets for both their physical energy and their competitive nature, demonstrated tremendous capacity for wellness. Indeed, the veteran successes on Snowmass mountain underscore the need to explore a broad and more inclusive definition of wellness for veterans.

Margaret C. Harrell is a senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.  She attended NDVWSC 2012 as a guest of Health Net, which is a donor to the CNAS Joining Forces research and a National Sponsor of the NDVWSC.