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Colo. Program Allows Wounded Vets to Recover One Step at a Time

April 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tom Bearden reports on LifeQuest, a Colorado organization helping wounded Afghanistan and Iraq veterans heal from physical and mental war wounds.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, helping badly wounded soldiers make their way back into society.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has the story.

MAN: So right here, we are at Helen Hunt Falls below us, St. Mary’s right here in front of us, and this — this is a generalized water ice fall.

TOM BEARDEN: A small group of people learning how to climb a nearly vertical frozen waterfall near Colorado Springs. The climb would be a challenge for any novice, even more so for a soldier who can’t use his right arm.

MAN: OK. Get good solid placements. Get that one up there. It’s all right. It’s all right.

TOM BEARDEN: But, after a little practice, Danny Kennedy scrambles up the hill faster than several of his more able-bodied colleagues, and then does it again.

MAN: Well done, brother.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MAN: Nice job.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TOM BEARDEN: This outing was organized by LifeQuest, a nonprofit that combines physical therapy with adventure sports to help heal veterans injured physically or psychologically in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is no cost to service members. All the bills are paid for by volunteers.

WOMAN: All right, we’re going to have you partner up.

TOM BEARDEN: LifeQuest started last year when Lt. Col. Andrew Grantham approached C.W. Conner, who was then running an adventure racing team, about staging some competitive events for the wounded soldiers under his command at nearby Fort Carson.

LT. COL. ANDREW GRANTHAM, Warrior Transition Battalion, U.S. Army: The idea is not only are they getting engaged, but once they finish that, they say, hey, if I can accomplish this, I can accomplish anything.

TOM BEARDEN: The event was a hit with everyone involved, and LifeQuest was born.

C.W. CONNER, LifeQuest: We were asked to try to provide a solution, to try to keep the suicide rates down, to keep these guys busy, to produce a program that was about empowerment, instead of entitlement.

TOM BEARDEN: In an eight-year period, 43 Fort Carson troops committed suicide. Conner thinks his program is already making a difference.

C.W. CONNER: We have seen significant decreases in pharmaceutical prescription drugs. We have seen an increased connectedness to the family. We have seen a decrease in depression. All of these items, I would think, help — would help point towards that inevitable of reduction of suicide.

TOM BEARDEN: In addition to rock climbing and snowshoe outings, the volunteer staff supervises daily exercise classes in a gym inside donated space on one side of a warehouse in Colorado Springs.

WOMAN: We don’t move into pain here, right?

WOMAN: No.

MAN: No.

WOMAN: No pain.

TOM BEARDEN: But LifeQuest’s first member was in a lot of pain when he arrived.

SGT. 1ST CLASS JUSTIN WIDHALM (RET.), U.S. Army: I broke my back in three places, dislocated both knees, a hip, broke both feet, and separated a shoulder.

TOM BEARDEN: Sgt. 1st Class Justin Widhalm was tossed out of a hovering helicopter in Iraq in 2006, this after surviving 13 roadside bomb blasts. He could barely get around then. He’s completely mobile now.

How long did that take, to get to this condition?

SGT. 1ST CLASS JUSTIN WIDHALM: About three-and-a-half years. It was — you know, I went through the surgeries and then after — had both knees reconstructed and both feet operated on and spine fused and that. So, it took step by step the procedures, because they couldn’t do it all at once, and — which just got frustrating, and couldn’t — you know, couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel at that period in my life.

TOM BEARDEN: Did you ever think along the way that you weren’t going to come back this far?

SGT. 1ST CLASS JUSTIN WIDHALM: Yes. Actually, in — in November of 2007, I tried to take my own life. And it was the darkest hour. But…

TOM BEARDEN: This program saved your life?

SGT. 1ST CLASS JUSTIN WIDHALM: Yes.

STAFF SGT. HERMAN HERRERA (RET.), Armored Cavalry Scout: So, you want to frogman up?

TOM BEARDEN: Not everybody buys into the program at first. Former armored cavalry scout Herman Herrera was among the skeptics.

STAFF SGT. HERMAN HERRERA: When I first heard of LifeQuest, I did not want to come here at all. I was totally anti. But I was in that very bad depressive state of my life. And I didn’t want to do anything. I was on the couch just sitting there, didn’t want to go out.

It’s having a purpose, kind of like having a mission like I had in the military. And once I have that mission and I have a task to accomplish, I have always accomplished my tasks in the military. So, when C.W. gives me a task like organizing ice climbing and getting stuff going like this, it gives me a purpose and it gives me motivation to move and get out and not sit in a depressed state.

TOM BEARDEN: The Army has shown some interest in replicating the program at other installations and perhaps operating it themselves.

Capt. Brett Kelley isn’t sure that’s a good idea. He commands one of the units of injured and ill soldiers transitioning out of the service.

Is this kind of program something that can be done inside the Army, or is it better done by civilians?

CAPT. BRETT KELLEY, U.S. Army: I think it is much better done by civilians. LifeQuest at least seems to have the resources and the knowledge and the skills that a lot of us Army personnel are not trained on. Most Army personnel, myself especially, I don’t have the skills to do what they do for my guys.

MAN: All right, so what we’re doing here is we’re doing a functional movement sweep, OK?

TOM BEARDEN: Each new member — there have been 500 so far — gets a basic physical evaluation to provide a baseline to measure progress.

MAN: Get your feet set and then give me your best squat. Good. Where are you feeling that?

MAN: Right there. That’s in the back.

MAN: In the back? OK. Come back up there. Come back up, all the way up. Coming back up there. Good.

MAN: Oh.

TOM BEARDEN: Conner wants to treat every soldier that needs help, but he says there are now so many soldiers, that he and his staff can longer pay the bills by themselves. LifeQuest recently started a modest fundraising effort, and, like many nonprofits, have found that challenging. But Conner says they have no choice but to succeed.

C.W. CONNER: And we have made it happen for the last year-and-a-half. And we can continue to make this happen. It’s a matter of will. We need to be the example here. If we’re asking these soldiers that are broken, ill, injured, confused, if we’re telling them that they can successfully transition, we damn sure should be able to get up every morning and make this door stay open.

TOM BEARDEN: And the soldiers will be out of doors more frequently as the weather warms up. Last month, LifeQuest launched an adventure racing program, where teams are competing in mountain biking, trekking and white water racing events throughout the summer.