Initiative helps disabled vets stay active

  • Published
  • By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
  • American Forces Press Service
A recent initiative launched by officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Olympic Committee is giving disabled veterans a chance to rediscover their potential through athletics and competition.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between the two organizations Oct. 21 to expand Paralympics sport programs to wounded warriors rehabilitating at community-level recreational facilities. Before the memorandum, Paralympics programs were offered primarily through warrior transition units at facilities such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center here; the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; and VA rehabilitation centers.

Through the agreement, officials with the Paralympics division of the U.S. Olympic Committee and VA hope to ensure disabled veterans can be physically active when they return home, said Charlie Huebner, the Paralympic division chief.

"There's 24-hour-a-day care when you're at a VA medical center, and you've got the best care in the world there," he said. "But what we're most concerned about is when you leave that facility and go home. You might go home to a rural community that just doesn't have the resources and expertise to provide a person in a wheelchair everyday physical activity."

When rehabilitating veterans return home and they've left VA therapy behind, there may not be much opportunity to continue physical training and activity, Mr. Huebner said. Making programs available and providing training at existing recreational facilities will help to alleviate that issue.

"We've identified a significant need for injured veterans," he said. "When they return home, we want to ensure that there's expert programming, support, equipment and mentors available to them to participate in everyday physical activity. It's a significant need, and we see every day the importance of physical activity in the rehab process."

Adaptive sports rehabilitation has proven time and again to have a positive, long-lasting effect on wounded warriors, Mr. Huebner added.

Although the Paralympics focus on physical rehabilitation, it's difficult not to recognize the psychological impact, Mr. Huebner said. Something as simple as learning to play basketball or to ski with a disability, and to do so with friends and families, can greatly improve a disabled person's mental strength, which is an important aspect to recovery, he said.

"We see on a daily basis the additional outcomes that aren't necessarily our mission," he said. "Our mission isn't to find jobs and to get people in college, but what we see is persons with a physical disability going to college (or) pursuing careers who are active in their community because of the confidence they gained through sports."

The partnership gives $10 million of the VA's annual budget to the Paralympics. About $8 million of that will go to community-level recreation facilities that already serve veterans. Other funds from private Paralympics organizations will assist, Mr. Huebner said.

He wouldn't speculate on exactly how many communities would be affected, but said Paralympics mentors and trainers will be on hand to enhance programs for community facilities across the country.

Since 2003, Paralympics representatives have been providing services for 105 community recreation facilities, 14 wounded-warrior transition units and 15 VA health care systems.

"The healing power of sports is amazing," Mr. Huebner said. "When people become physically disabled, they think about all the things they can't do. That's just human nature.  But something as simple as being able to shoot a basketball or skiing or playing catch with your child ... makes people realize a whole level of opportunity. Things are going to be different, but they're going to be OK."