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Ski Therapy Helps Healing Process for War Veterans

January 9, 2007 at 4:40 PM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Twenty-three-year-old Army Specialist Natasha McKinnon has learned a lot about facing adversity over the last year-and-a-half. When an explosive tore through her leg in Iraq, she applied her own tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

For the past 14 months, she’s been undergoing rigorous physical therapy, including one-on-one basketball at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

SKI INSTRUCTOR: This is a thing called a Biski. And the way it turns, it’s you lean the ski, all right? So Cory’s going to lean you.

TOM BEARDEN: And just last month, she decided to take up skiing, even though she had never tried it when she had two legs. She says she refuses to think of herself as disabled.

NATASHA MCKINNON, Wounded Iraq Vet: It’s just my leg. I still have my arms, my eyes, my ears, my personality, my humor.

TOM BEARDEN: McKinnon was just one of 60 soldiers wounded in the Iraq war who took part in a week-long ski program in Breckenridge, Colorado, sponsored by Disabled Sports USA.

KIRK BAUER, Disabled Sports USA: One of the reasons we have so many of some of the best instructors in the country here is because they want to come out here and be able to be of service to you wounded warriors who have been of service to our country.

TOM BEARDEN: The program is led by Kirk Bauer, a Vietnam veteran who lost his leg in that war 37 years ago. He said, after he was wounded, he was so depressed he contemplated suicide, but then some other veterans taught him how to ski.

KIRK BAUER: It just completely turned my head around. You know, I’d been living in a slow-motion world. I was frustrated. I’d been in pain.

And all of the sudden, I was able to get out in the fresh air, go down a hill feeling free and feeling all the speed. And it was just the most incredible high in the world. And it was that thing that really lit my fire and just started me thinking about possibilities and thinking about what I could do with my life.

TOM BEARDEN: Disabled Sports USA is a nonprofit organization founded by Vietnam veterans in 1967. Each year, it holds numerous events for some 60,000 disabled athletes, both veterans and non-veterans. Ski week is the biggest, and the organization pays for veterans and their families to come to Colorado.

Veterans like Army Lieutenant John Fernandez, who lost both his legs during the initial invasion just south of Baghdad. After months of rehab at Walter Reed, Fernandez was able to ski again, using his two prosthetic legs and no adaptive equipment.

He now works for the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps sponsor ski week. He says the event inspires many injured vets to try things they didn’t think were possible.

Instilling confidence

JOHN FERNANDEZ, Wounded Warrior Project: They say, "Hey, you know what? If that guy can do it, I can do it. If she could go down the mountain blind, then I could do it missing one leg."

And that's the motivation there. And we try and get all these men and women together, because there is a common bond: the bonds of service and the bonds of sacrifice.

TOM BEARDEN: Joseph Worley was a Navy medic tending to victims of an improvised explosive device when he was hit by a second IED and gunfire in the fall of 2004.

Last year, he came to Breckenridge and tried a sit ski, a small chair on a single ski, which the rider balances with poles that also have small skis at the end. Worley quickly advanced to the most difficult terrain and came back this year to teach others.

He says the experience has helped him mentally, as much as it has physically.

JOSEPH WORLEY, Wounded Iraq Veteran: It's almost like before I was injured, where, you know, I start skiing and, you know, a week later, I'm doing black diamond. And, you know, it kind of puts everything in your head the way that it should be again, that, you know, things aren't even remotely as bad as you think they are.

A lot of what you're going through is self-pity and self-induced. And, you know, once you get past your physical injury, you need to suck it up and don't let mental injury or psychological depression or anything hold you down, because this is something that everybody should experience.

TOM BEARDEN: Natasha McKinnon wasn't going to let anything hold her down, in spite of the fact that learning to use a sit ski wasn't easy.

NATASHA MCKINNON: OK, I'm getting tired.

TOM BEARDEN: Finally, she got the hang of it.

NATASHA MCKINNON: Yee-haw!

It shows you that, no matter what your limitations are, you can still achieve or accomplish anything that you set your mind to.

TOM BEARDEN: McKinnon says skiing has helped give her a boost of confidence that she hopes will keep her motivated during the next six to 12 months of her continuing rehabilitation.