Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project
by Mary Eisenhart
Back in the late ’60s, Kirk Bauer, a decorated soldier, a lifelong athlete, and the kind of guy who had frequently cut school in his native Oakland to go surfing in Santa Cruz, lost a leg in combat in the Vietnam War and endured a grueling convalescence.
“After struggling with seven operations and six months on my back,” he recalls, “they put me back together at the hospital. It was a pretty frustrating experience – a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence about what I would be doing with my life.”
Into this private hell came the National Amputee Skiers Association, launched a few years earlier by other disabled vets. “Some fellow veterans visited me and got me out of the hospital and took me up skiing,” Bauer recalls. “I really didn’t think I could do it, but I went up anyway just to try it.”
It turned out to be a life-changing event, and a planned one-day trip extended into four. “I was able to actually make a turn down the slope on the first day,” he says. “It was the biggest high in the world to be able to move again, go fast, feel the wind against my face – it was a transforming experience for me, and I couldn’t leave.”
The ski trip made such a difference in Bauer’s life that he immediately signed on as a volunteer. Today he’s served for 23 years as the executive director of the group, now known as Disabled Sports USA. The group has expanded its offerings considerably, with a variety of sports rehabilitation programs around the country for those with permanent disabilities. It also sponsors competitive events.
Most of the organization’s work over the years has been with civilians, but in 2003 DS/USA had an opportunity to return to its roots. A group called the Wounded Warrior Project, which was working with seriously injured vets returning from the Middle East, asked about forming a partnership.
“Both of us were at the hospitals serving the severely wounded,” Bauer explains. “They are there to provide counseling and financial assistance to the family, clothing and so on. They saw what we were doing and said ‘Hey, we love what you do. We look on this as part of what we want to do. Let’s be partners.’
“DS/USA is a sports organization for people with disabilities, primarily civilians and not military. They realized we were doing a great job and wanted to support it; we were looking for funding and they’re one of our major funding sources. So we’ve come together as partners for the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project.
“We’re focusing on those who have lost, or lost the use of, something for the rest of their lives,” he continues. “People with amputations, visual impairment, spinal cord injury, head injury, where they’ve become permanently, severely disabled. That numbers in the couple of thousands so far in this conflict.” Since the project’s launch in 2003, it’s worked with over 700 vets and 400 family members. In 2005, the Rex Foundation, which had previous given DS/USA a grant in 1995, contributed funds to support the project specifically. Rex presented Bauer with a check at that year’s Black Tie-Dye Ball in D.C. – “lots of tie-dyed shirts,” says Bauer, “but not so many black ties.
“We couldn’t do all of this without people like the Rex Foundation,” he adds. “What I find gratifying, quite frankly – and it’s very different from what happened during the Vietnam War – is that no matter whether somebody is for or against the war, they all want to help the guys who’ve been severely wounded who’ve given the most to this country. I am very grateful that the American people have pulled behind this project and supported it. We rely on private sector donations – we do not get federal funding.
“This program is changing lives, there is no question about it,” he continues. “It is making a difference very early on, and helping to set the vets on a good positive track. And it needs support.”
Rex Foundation: Who are the vets you’re serving today – and why have sports turned out to be such a great tool for rehabilitation?
Kirk Bauer, Disabled Sports USA: My experience as a vet back in the ’60s is still very typical of hundreds of these guys that we serve- they’re very active, many of them were and are athletes, they’re big into stamina events like marathons and army 10-milers. So for them, the comedown of being permanently disabled is even greater.
When these guys crash, they really crash. They’ve come from being trained to take cities to lying flat on their back. When I first visit them they’ve got tubes coming out of them, they’ve got pins in them, they’re in pain. The comedown is a huge, huge hit. It tends to create a mental state that involves depression and despair and a lot of other negative things.
We go in there and start talking to them real early, introducing them to the idea that they can be active sports people no matter what, even with a severe disability – and here’s how we’re going to do it.
I’ve had people ask me to leave the room; that’s OK, they’re not ready for it. But it plants a seed early on. Then later on, sometimes only a few months later, we’re actually able to get them out and get them to do something. And that early experience helps to turn their confidence, their mindset around, so they can basically build their lives again.
One of the beauties about sports is that we can introduce it very early. In some cases we can take amputees who haven’t even gotten their leg yet, and we can get them out skiing or water skiing or bicycling without the prosthetic aids.
People say “Gee, you’ve got a triple amputee here, how are you going to teach them to ski or water ski?” And not only can we do it, we can almost do it faster than with a person with all their limbs, because of the adaptive equipment available and because of the trained instructors; they get individualized instruction, which helps.
Recently we had 58 young men and women at a ski event. In order to get on a chair lift you have to be able to make a turn and stop so you don’t kill yourself. You learn how to ski the first day, then we take you up in the chair lift. Every one of them got up on the chair lift the first day.
There were eight double amputees in that group. There were men, there were women, didn’t matter. We were able to get them going, and right away they had a successful experience, just a little thing like being able to turn a ski. This starts to rebuild their confidence: “Hey, I can do this.” It really is a tremendous tool for rehabilitation.”
Rex: How long do you typically work with each vet?
DS/USA: We do whatever it takes to get that person to a point where they feel independent, confident and fit, and ready to take on the world.
The first stage is just to teach them a skill and let them focus on becoming accomplished in that skill. That’s the rehab part – they focus on something positive, and it really begins their road to recovery. That can take place literally within a few months of their injuries. Over the next months and years we make available to them every opportunity they want to take advantage of to learn sports skills. We can teach them over 20 different sports – golf, cycling, rock climbing, fly fishing and many other sports besides skiing.
When they become proficient in one or more skills, we turn information about them over to our local chapters. When the vets get discharged and go back into civilian life, they can take advantage of the programs locally or continue to take part in the project. We are still serving some young men and women who were injured in 2003 and 2004.
The big thing is, once they learn those skills and get that adaptive equipment, they can do that sport anyplace in the country, with anyone. The ideal is to give them the tools to do it anywhere, with or without an organized group like DS/USA. They can do that – they can go skiing anywhere, they can go cycling anywhere. So we sometimes stay with them for not months but years. Our commitment is open-ended until they are back and fully confident in their mobility.
Rex: What’s changed over the decades in terms of who your clients are, and what resources you have available?
First of all, let’s talk about opportunity and availability. DS/USA as an organization really reflects the transformation. We started out as one chapter in California doing one sport, winter skiing, basically for one group of disabled amputees. And now DS/USA is 90 chapters operating in 36 states, offering over 20 different sports activities year round.
Also, as far as opportunities are concerned, the cities and counties are starting to open up their recreation programs to people with disabilities and trying to accommodate them. There’s still a long way to go, but the movement is in the right direction.
The second thing that’s really changed is equipment. Using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, some of the space-age materials, and using some of the engineering that’s been developed around motorcycle cross-country racing, and running dynamics and aerodynamics that are literally performed in wind tunnels for wheelchair devices – you now have a piece of equipment available to all the sports we offer, everything from adaptive prosthetic devices to adaptive vehicles like racing chairs or hand cycles, to adaptations such as swiveling chairs that can be used so a disabled person can operate a sailboat single-handedly. All those things, developed in the last 40 years, have transformed the availability of adaptive sports to people with disabilities.
The third thing that’s changed is the trained instructors. Back in the late ’60s every time we taught a student we had to reinvent the wheel. Somebody would teach an amputee in California and then somebody else would do it in Colorado, and they’d both be stumbling around trying to figure out what’s the best way to make this happen. Many more teaching programs exist now that enable professionals or volunteers in the field to teach the latest adaptation and to know how to do it before they go to teach a student, so they don’t fumble around. There’s a certification program offered by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, there’s a certification of instructors in SCUBA, there’s certification for instructors in skiing and sailing.
We have a new a program with the PGA – we have trained 36 of their professionals near a hospital where severely wounded vets are being treated, and they’re going to be able to provide continuous instruction free of charge to any wounded warrior who wants to learn golf. They’ve been trained to teach somebody who’s in a wheelchair, somebody who’s blind, somebody who has one arm or one leg, to play golf.
We just employed the American Canoe and Kayak Association to teach the instructors at a new amputee center for wounded warriors. So the opportunities are greater because of more trained instructors.
Rex: It also seems that in contrast to the days of the Vietnam War, everybody seems to support the troops, whether they support the war or not.
DS/USA: That’s true. People now are much more aware that these young men and women are here to serve their country, that’s what they want to do. Back in the days of Vietnam, when people turned against the war they turned against the soldiers as well. That’s not happening in this war, and I hope that continues, because they’re deserving of our support no matter how you feel about the war.
Rex: In the Vietnam days, a lot of the troops were draftees. Today some of them are career military, but a lot of them are also “citizen soldiers” from the reserves or National Guard. Do you see that making a difference for the vets you serve and the issues they’re facing?
DS/USA: Well, the first thing is attitude. All of the people that are serving did volunteer to serve. Their attitude is much more “I signed up, I knew that I might go to war, and in war you do get injured. What I want to do is learn to how live with this.” That attitude is much more prevalent.
That does not mean that they don’t suffer depression, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have setbacks, but they seem to be more willing to try to move on and accept what happened to them, and try to make the best of it.
The biggest change, though, is the women. Quite frankly, as a male who has seen the war, it’s distressing to see women who are amputees coming back. They are serving on the front lines right along with our young men, and doing this valiantly and heroically. My heart goes out to them for their service, but it’s probably the toughest thing for me personally to witness.
Rex: Does the fact that more of them have families and adult responsibilities have ripple effects on your work and the problems you’re trying to address?
DS/USA: It does and it doesn’t. We’re still seeing a lot of young people, but we’re also seeing a lot of middle-aged people in the National Guard and the reserve, and we also see more who have families. In that respect, they have more responsibility, more pressure on them.
One of the things we’re committed to – and thanks to our partners we’ve been able to meet that – is that no matter what program we offer to them, everything, once they go out with us, everything is paid for. Instructions, lodging, airfare, everything that it takes for them to take part in the sport is paid for. We realize that some of these guys and gals are young, low-level NCOs and enlisted people. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re trying to raise families, and they could not take part in these programs without the cost being paid for. So we are much more sensitive to their financial needs and try to respond to that by making this free of charge.
Rex Board Perspective
Rex board member Diane Blagman says: “The mission of the Rex Foundation is to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, and assist others less fortunate than ourselves.
“The original Rex Foundation grant to DS/USA was many years ago, in 1995. One of the strongest supporters of this grant was Jerry Garcia. He sat next to me at the board meeting and spoke up to support this proposal.
“I was really proud of Rex when they approved funding for the Wounded Warrior Project/Disabled Sports USA. Kirk Bauer is an amputee and a Vietnam vet. He received no federal funding for this project – he simply and quietly went out and helped those who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered loss of limbs. He showed them that there they can have a productive and fulfilling life, and literally changed so many lives.”
Meet Orlando Gill
Born in the Bronx, Orlando Gill was 19 when he enlisted in the Army in 1992. Over the course of his service he traveled around the world, and was in his second tour of duty in Iraq when he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Ramadi. The explosion amputated one of his legs at the knee.
That was in October, 2004. When he got to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C., he quickly got a visit from Kirk Bauer of DS/USA. “We came down to the fact that I like snowboarding and snow sports, that I was a snowboarder before,” Gill recalls. “He said he’d get me back up on the mountain.
“And sure enough, in January of 2005 he had me back out on the mountain again. We went to Vail, Colorado. They gave me an instructor and started teaching me how to relearn how to snowboard again. It was great!”
Today Gill, who married a soldier he met at Walter Reed and has a son, is retired from the service and living in the D.C. area. He volunteers full time with DS/USA, helping other soldiers in the program – transporting them to events such as the newly launched golf clinic, helping in the office, and especially visiting wounded vets in the hospital. “I do get all kinds of different responses when I talk to them about doing things,” he says. “Some guys, they’re not ready for this, but we still talk to them, trying to get them into doing it. And then others are all excited and really want to get into the swing of things.”
Gill reports that the golf clinic is turning out to be a big hit with the vets he’s working with. “A lot of them are really excited. When they first go there they don’t know what’s going on – and then they’re all up for doing it again, and asking if I’m going to pick them up next Saturday.”
And it’s not just the vets themselves who benefit – the program helps their entire families, who can all get involved in the sports activities. This is a real boon to overall morale – “It gives the family something to do besides just sitting in the hospital,” says Gill.
While the program has benefited many and received huge support, he says, there are always more vets in need than there are resources.
“The support the American public has given to the soldiers is incredible,” he says. “We have a lot of support from everybody.
“But there’s never enough to help out somebody; there’s no such thing as ‘I’ve done enough.’ It’s about, ‘What else can we do for somebody?'”