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09-11-07, 06:10 AM #1
For brain-injured veterans, trip can be journey to healing
For brain-injured veterans, trip can be journey to healing
Challenge Aspen offers recreation for the disabled
By John C. Ensslin, Rocky Mountain News
September 11, 2007
GLENWOOD SPRINGS - James Hancock Jr. took two big falls in the past two years. One nearly killed him. The other may help him heal.
Last year, the 24-year-old Marine from Sacramento, Calif., was guarding a water treatment plant near Fallujah, Iraq, when he fell 1 1/2 stories during a sandstorm and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
On Monday, Hancock was precariously balanced on the prow of a big blue raft when he fell backward into the swift, cold Colorado River near Glenwood Springs. His father, James Sr., also a Marine, grabbed him by the life preserver and hauled him back on board.
Both laughed as the son tumbled on top of his dad, who fell backward into the boat.
"There's no point in living if you can't enjoy life," said the son, who suffers from chronic pain.
"At least I got to experience the moment. It gave me a chance to test my limits and know where they are and how I can improve.
"And it gave me a chance to have fun with my dad."
Roots of the program
In brief, that's the whole point of a week of outdoor adventures organized by Challenge Aspen, a 12-year-old nonprofit based in Snowmass Village that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.
The program traces its roots to a school for blind skiers. When the co-founder of the school broke her back in a skiing accident, the idea of starting a recreation program for people with disabilities took hold.
Hancock is one of 16 Iraq war veterans, all of whom recently suffered traumatic brain injuries, who are spending the week rafting, horseback riding and hot-air ballooning.
The program tries to balance adventure and safety as a way to foster healing, said Sarah W. Volf, director of programs for Challenge Aspen, who landed a grant from an anonymous donor that underwrote this week's program.
"You don't want it to be a spectator sport, but you don't want to make it so difficult that some people can't participate," Volf said.
So on Monday, the injured soldiers plus their relatives and therapists shoved off in four boats on a sandy spot near Grizzly Creek. No sooner were they on the mildly choppy river when a friendly water fight broke out, with the rafters splashing each other with their paddles.
Then upon reaching a calm stretch of river, they took turns in a water version of rodeo, with rafters trying to stand on the edge of the spinning boat while holding onto a yellow nylon cord, much like a cowboy trying to ride a bucking bronco.
Engaging in such horseplay during a rafting trip is a big step for people who have suffered brain injuries. Some have difficulties with memory or emotion. Others with language. Some with walking.
'Brand new medicine'
Traumatic brain injury has been the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A May 2005 study in the New England Journal of Medicine quoted an estimate from one Army medical center in Germany, which found that 22 percent of the soldiers they treat from those conflicts had sustained injuries to the head, face or neck.
However, advances in battlefield medicine and body armor have enabled soldiers to survive blasts that would have left them dead several years ago.
But treating returning veterans also has forced therapists to rethink the old model of simply keeping injured soldiers in a hospital until they recover.
"It's brand new medicine," said Susan Feighery, lead recreational therapist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, Calif., which with another in Tampa, Fla., sent staffers and patients to Colorado this week.
In a variation on the Marine motto, Feighery quips that they call the approach "Semper Gumby," meaning staying faithful to the traditional forms of treatment while improvising ways to return injured people to the challenges of their everyday lives.
"Your training and experience and graduate degrees only will take you so far because the book on this population hasn't been written," she said.
More than mending
This week's program evolved out of a 10-day rafting trip that Volf led on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Among those on board that trip was Jason Poole, a 24-year- old British-born soldier from Cupertino, Calif. Poole sustained a brain injury in a blast that killed two Iraqi soldiers.
Feighery, who was also on the earlier trip, recalled the difficulty Poole had getting into the raft, until he saw another veteran, a triple amputee with one arm, literally crawl into the boat.
"It was like an awakening," Poole said of the journey that followed. "It was amazing. Everyone had the best time."
Feighery saw a huge improvement in Poole's confidence following the earlier rafting trip.
Monday's outing did more than help mend war injuries. It gave James Hancock Sr. a chance to reconnect with the son he almost lost. The younger Hancock said that when he was rushed to a military hospital he was tagged as "expecting," as in "expecting to die."
But he lived to take another fall, off the side of a raft, only to have his father pull him back in.
"It's awesome" the elder Hancock said, as father and son stood soaking wet on the shore after their trip. "This is a second chance for us. Sometimes, you take for granted the time you have with your kids."
The two-hour rafting trip left the son exhausted but happy. On the bus ride back to the hotel, he fell fast asleep, his head resting on his father's shoulder.
• Year founded: 1995
• Mission: Provides recreational, cultural, competitive and educational experiences for people with mental or physical disabilities
• Staff: 13
• Volunteers: 150 active volunteers
• Number of people served: Since 1995, the number of participants has increased from 129 to 772 during the 2006-07 fiscal year. The age range of participants during the 2006-07 winter and summer seasons was 4 to 82 years old.
• This week: Sixteen injured Iraq War veterans are involved in a variety of activities, including white-water rafting, hoseback riding, hot-air ballooning, hot springs visits, picnics and special dinners.
• For more information: challengeaspen.com or 970-923-0578
ensslinj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5291
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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