An Inspiring Day With Veterans With Disabilities

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By Louisa Jaffe, TAPE CEO/President

On Veterans Day, Bill Jaffe featured a guest post on his blog by Octavia (Tae) Harris. Tae and I both sit on the Advisory Committee of Women Veterans and were honored to tour several sites and facilities this fall. A highlight for us both was to visit the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego.

The photo on Bill’s site captures the special moment when the women vets arrived at the site and were taken off the bus. As they rode by in their wheelchairs, the crowd cheered them on. It was very inspiring to see.

Over the course of our visit we had a chance to observe the training of disabled veterans on surfboards, bicycles, rock climbing and kayaking. Not only was the sense of competitiveness fun to watch, it was moving and heart-warming to see the dedication of the volunteers protecting the safety of the veterans as they participated in these sports.

For example, there was one young man who was a double-amputee below the knee, wearing two prosthetic legs and feet. The volunteers worked with him again and again and again to stand up on the surfboard out in the ocean, and as soon as he did, he would fall down, again and again. However, eventually he stood up, and later I had the delight to watch him catch a wave and ride it all the way in (an entirely new set of actions required, naturally, for even that ride alone), balancing on two prosthetic legs. His sense of victory was palpable. I could feel it as my own.

Later, I saw a man with one leg and no prosthetics climb a rock wall. I saw him struggle with each step because he had to figure out how to hop to each level balancing on only one leg.

When he was about halfway up I could see he wanted to give up, but the amazing volunteers wouldn’t coddle him. They shouted, “Don’t you think about coming down here; you go to the top and ring the bell!” I saw him hanging there trying to figure out how to do this. And do you know what? He made it to the top. He rang that bell. And when he came down you could see the pride beaming in his face.

None of the volunteers showed any pity for these veterans with disabilities. Rather, they helped them realize this is the body they have now; let’s explore what you can do with it. That attitude of encouragement was clearly transformative.

One of my favorite events to watch was the kayaking, with kayaks specially fitted for people with disabilities or amputations. It was fascinating to witness the whole system for how the person could lift themselves up, swing around, and be transferred back into their wheelchair.

They used the kayaks to play water polo, and a version of football. One of the players was completely blind, sitting in the front of a two-person kayak with a volunteer in back. In spite of the fact that he didn’t score one goal, in fact he often threw the ball (unwittingly) right to the other team, his team voted him the MVP – most valuable player.

In fact, neither side had scored a single point but they had a great time and got plenty of exercise, using their bodies to maneuver through the water.

I am honoured and privileged that I was able to witness this event. I was so moved by the courage and spirit of these veterans who have faced the challenges of being wounded and losing limbs or having other disabilities, now facing the even more daunting task of integrating into life – not having the body they started out with, but working hard to have that not make their life any less meaningful.

It prompts us all to ask ourselves, “What are we doing with the body and life we’ve been given?”

Click here to read Octavia’s story: Supporting Women Veterans.
Click here to learn more about the National Veterans Summer Sports Camp.
Click here to learn more about the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.