- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In the early 1980s, Santo Trombetta, a recreational therapist in Grand Junction, Colo., befriended one of his patients, a veteran with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease that slowly weakens and eventually paralyzes the limbs.

“He was in such bad shape that he could not even open the wrapper on his sandwich,” says Mr. Trombetta, who identifies his patient as “Joe.”

After months of grueling therapy and bonding between the two men, Joe played a round of golf with Mr. Trombetta, who helped Joe swing by holding him up by the belt.

The two kept up their friendship, and one day Mr. Trombetta suggested they try skiing.

“I can’t even walk, how am I going to ski?” Mr. Trombetta recalls Joe asking.

After more encouragement and tutelage from his therapist and friend, Joe rose to the occasion and mastered the slopes.

“It hit me like lightning. I realized this was not about the skiing. This was about this man trying to regain himself,” Mr. Trombetta recalls.

Joe was the inspiration behind the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, now in its 23rd year, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans (www.wintersportsclinic.va. gov).

The weeklong clinic, which ends Saturday, brings about 400 disabled active military and veterans to Snowmass Village, Colo., for skiing; sled hockey; rock-wall climbing; snowmobiling; scuba diving and good, old-fashioned friend making.

Participation is open to active military personnel and veterans with traumatic brain and spinal-cord injuries, orthopedic amputations and visual impairments. Attendance is not limited to service members who were injured in combat.

Mr. Trombetta, the national director of the program, says 200 ski instructors from around the world fly in, without compensation, to teach basic skills and “meet the unique needs of the participants.” Mr. Trombetta also expects another 350 unpaid volunteers will assist with the activities.

According to the Veterans Office of Public Affairs, some of the participants will develop their skiing to an “elite” level so that they may qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Team.

With entertainment by Taylor Dayne and a visit from Bo Derek, the clinic offers therapeutic sessions and educational resources to help attendees deal with their injuries and move on with their lives.

Karl Dorman, a 36-year-old Iraqi Freedom veteran from Maryland who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, has attended the clinic for the past four years.

“When you have a tragic accident, you have so many surgeries that are not very pleasant and can be very depressing,” Mr. Dorman says. “At the clinic, you learn how to deal with your own problems and meet other people with the same problems. You learn that life is not over and that you can do the same things you did before.”

Mr. Trombetta says attendees like Mr. Dorman receive funding for their stay at the event from their local veterans affairs office and from private and corporate financial assistance to the Disabled American Veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs.

Care package support

Sharon Rainey also has been inspired by personal experience to brighten the lives of servicemen and -women.

She recalls that several years ago, she bumped into a friend who was sending her soldier son in Afghanistan a care package.

“I thought it was a great idea for us to do that as a community to let [the military] know we are thinking of them,” she says.

With the help of volunteers, Mrs. Rainey, who is president and founder of Neighbors International Foundation in Great Falls, Va., will send about 15,000 care packages this year to Iraq, Afghanistan and aircraft carriers. The packages will contain items such as beef jerky; Little Debbie cakes; microwaveable macaroni and cheese; and everyone’s favorite, Girl Scout cookies.

She explains that some of the packages contain requested items and others are sent as a general token of good will.

“Absolutely Thin Mints,” Mrs. Rainey says with a laugh when asked which type of Girl Scout cookie gets the most requests.

It costs approximately $1 to send the package, and the organization receives funding for the mailing costs through e-mail pleas and online donations.

The arduous task, however, is the packing. Mrs. Rainey gets together with about 20 appreciative people for “packing parties.” She says the next one will take place later this month.

According to Mrs. Rainey, volunteers are especially buoyed by the letters of appreciation that pour in from care-package recipients.

“I want to thank you for sending us cookies. It was a pleasant surprise. I was in the middle of my 12-hour shift when I was handed a box of thin mints, my favorite. Don’t worry, I shared them with my fellow team members. Thanks again for caring,” wrote Walt Luker.

Another wrote: “My name is George Prodan. I’m not American. I’m Romanian, but we are coalition partners and as usual, they are sharing your cookies with us. I just want to say you are doing a great job and we appreciate you keeping us in your thoughts. Thank you again for your outstanding support.”

“The beef jerky and Slim Jims are a good snack because when you are in a convoy you do not have time to stop and eat. I hope you do not mind but, I gave the beanie baby to one of the local children here. The rest of the items in the package were shared with the rest of my team. We really appreciate the box, thank you very much,” wrote Army Staff Sgt. Robert W. Martin from Afghanistan.

Mrs. Rainey says those who would like to donate or volunteer for a packing party can visit https://nifoundation.org.

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