Ryan Craig just took off on what could be a life-changing solo adventure.
Craig, 26, a disabled U.S. Army veteran, is one of five veterans from Oregon who will participate in the 28th annual National Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic beginning Monday in Snowmass Village, Colo. The clinic, sponsored by Disabled American Veterans and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, invites active duty and veteran military service members to learn winter sports taught by VA volunteers, adaptive ski instructors and a few members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.
Craig and his mom, Jennifer Miller, both of Prineville, found out about the clinic in December when a VA social worker asked whether they had accessed any of the veteran programs available.
“His first reaction was that he didn’t think he was able to do something like that … that he didn’t have the skills or the ability,” Miller, 50, said. “They reassured him and went over the program and into details with him. He got a twinkle in his eye and felt like he was gaining some normalcy.”
Miller said they immediately filled out the application and she received the invitation call in February.
Clinic applicants have to be cleared by the their doctor and go through a second screening on-site in Colorado before they’re allowed to participate, said Teresa Parks, clinic director. She said 325 veterans were invited to the clinic this year, including at least 100 first-timers. The vets are divided into 12 different sit-down and stand-up teams mixing first-timers with returning vets.
“We do about 1,200 lessons in a week,” Parks said. “These new guys that come in are nervous and really hesitant — they’re pushing them out of their comfort zone. You have the ones that have been coming for a while that show ’em the ropes and take them under their wing. It’s very cool to watch.”
Craig was injured in Afghanistan in November 2010 when his platoon was ambushed. He was providing cover fire to allow some of his fellow platoon members to escape the area. He was shot in the head, with the bullet penetrating his helmet and damaging the two frontal lobes of his brain.
“He went through a whole bunch of surgeries and basically his whole skull has been rebuilt to help with brain swelling,” Miller said. She said that in four years, Craig has relearned how to walk and talk and perform “other basic functions of life.”
He’s in outpatient status with the Bend VA Clinic and is classified as having a traumatic brain injury.
Though he still requires 24-hour care, he’ll be making the trip alone with Miller’s blessing and the support of family and friends. “He was expressing some desire for independence,” Miller said. “I’m terrified and excited at the same time.”
Craig will take to Snowmass Mountain starting Monday with the 16-member, stand-up Powderhorn team, learning skiing, snowmobiling, kayaking and bucket hockey.
Miller said he’ll have at least two other VA families looking after him while he’s there. “It’s pretty amazing that programs like this exist,” she said. “I hope he takes away a sense of self-worth and self-pride and (that) some interpersonal confidence will be restored.”
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