Veterans History

Freedom

{fre-dam} n. 1. the state of being at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint

tony

Tony Santilli, Marine Corps Veteran whose leg was amputated after being wounded in Vietnam, had a dream of sharing the feeling of freedom and motion that he gets from skiing with local area veterans. Santilli remembers his first reaction to being told to give skiing a try was, “what are you nuts?” Then he tried it and was immediately hooked. Tony found that skiing helped him to overcome PTSD and his disability.

Through combining resources and contacts, Santilli and Ralph Marche, Chief of Voluntary Service at Boston VA, established the New England Winter Sports Clinic for Disabled Veterans turning Santilli’s dream into reality in January 1998. Today Tony is a certified instructor, expert skier – – one of the best on the mountains on any given day regardless of a missing leg. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of other disabled veterans by giving them the same opportunity to learn to ski. They developed the program for any Veteran who is physically disabled and medically stable. The focus is on downhill skiing with some alternative recreational activities, such as wheelchair basketball, provided. Prior to that Veterans had to travel to Colorado to attend a National Disabled Veterans Ski Program.

In the past five years, over 140 participants have benefited from the clinic. Santilli tells all his fellow veterans, “what you need is a willingness to learn and a sense of humor”, “if I can ski, anyone can.”

Despite an ice storm, which crippled most of New England and Eastern Canada, ten veterans braved the elements and overcame disability in the first clinic making it a success. That first year we were wrapping people with plastic bags to keep them dry, trying to keep the ice off them and all the wheelchairs were freezing over. The attitude of the Veterans truly symbolized the program. They sat there and smiled through everything. Marche said. “When they find out there is something fun about the snow, it gives winter a new meaning. Another obstacle in life, the weather, is overcome and they now look forward to snow”. “It’s a lifting or renewal of spirit within the individual-amazing.”

From the start, the clinic has grown from word of mouth. Over 40 veterans each year, from as many as 8 states, with spinal cord injuries, neurological afflictions, vision impairments, and amputees to mention a few disabilities participate. The people taking part in the clinic each year accomplish so much in terms of independence, confidence and just a feeling of real camaraderie.

Five teams are put together pairing instructors and participants. Veterans are allowed to visit for the day or stay in discounted lodging with local hotels. All participants work with adaptive skiing instructors and adaptive skiing equipment such as outriggers, ski poles, sit-ski devices (mono-skis, bi-skis) and tethering straps. Instructors assess each Veteran’s abilities to adapt the training program to meet their individual needs. Every participant will have an opportunity to take part in at least two ski training sessions during the event.

Stories are many — A visually impaired female veteran learning to ski at 82 years young. A young man who had suffered a spinal cord injury participating one month after being discharged from the medical center and active duty. He realized that he was still able to ski, a favorite activity prior to his accident. A bilateral amputee living in a VA nursing home unit who said after attending the clinic, “If I can learn to ski at 72 with no legs, I guess I can go home.” He had modifications made to his home and moved back with his wife.

This is my feel good program of the year notes Marche. “You can’t leave here and not feel good.” The participants show unbelievable courage just coming up here. They come together because it is for veterans – it’s a camaraderie they shared on the battlefields and a bravery they shared in military life that they’re willing to share on the mountains.

Perhaps more than ever, adaptive skiing is seen as a key to healthy rehabilitation and therapy for people with disabilities.