By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, April 1, 2013 - An Iraq war veteran now serving as a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official opened the world's largest and longest-running disabled sports event here last night, and he challenged almost 400 veterans to reach for new heights through teamwork and mental and physical toughness.
"We all know the importance of sports and the incredible results that they can play in not only healing our minds and bodies, but our spirits as well," Tommy Sowers, VA assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, told participants at opening ceremonies for the 27th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
"Sports are more than just activity and competition," he said. "They improve us, they teach us, they challenge us and make us stronger -- and they do it in ways that we cannot imagine."
Sowers urged the participants, including many that were wounded during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, to push their limits as they tackle events designed to help them discover new abilities.
"It is you and the mountain," he said. "Good luck. Have a wonderful week -- with determination, with toughness, and with joy."
The clinic, co-sponsored by VA and the Disabled American Veterans, is open to U.S. military veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
During the six-day program, veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and are introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey and other sports and activities.
But Larry Polzin, the DAV national commander, emphasized that the clinic is no vacation.
"You came here with a mission. Your job is to learn something new [and] to take that and make the most of it," Polzin told the veterans. "When you leave here, it is going to be a totally different feeling for you."
Those new discoveries will remain with the participants and help in their rehabilitation long after they return to their communities, Sower told American Forces Press Service.
"These sorts of events are absolutely critical, not just for the one week that they are here, but for the 51 other weeks [of the year] as well," he said. "We see the benefits going forward -- not just for the veterans themselves, but also for their caregivers and families."
As the veterans cheer on and inspire each other during the winter sports clinic, Sowers said they're also setting an example for others.
He noted, for example, that disabled athletes around the world benefit from adaptive equipment pioneered at the winter sports clinic, and the techniques taught here.
Sowers offered high praise to the DAV, the Snowmass Village and Aspen communities, and the hundreds of volunteers and sponsors who come together to make the clinic a success.
"It is not an example, it is THE example of the right type of public-private-local partnership," he said.
American Cold War Veterans, Inc.
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