Whistler welcomes wounded soldiers

U.S. Army members experience adaptive skiing, local hospitality

When U.S. Army Specialist Brian Roberts first saw the sit ski, he said it "just scared the hell out of me," and he couldn't wrap his brain around sitting down on a single ski.

But with the help and step-by-step instructions of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP) coaches, he spent three "perfect" days flowing down Whistler's slopes this weekend.

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It was his first visit to Whistler and only his second time on snow. But it was the accomplishment of sit skiing after being seriously injured by a roadside bomb while on duty in Afghanistan last year that made Roberts' Whistler experience stand out.

"It's one more step towards becoming normal again - being as normal as I ever will be," Roberts said on Sunday (Jan. 23).

"This program is awesome."

Roberts was one of four injured U.S. soldiers from Fort Lewis, Wash. who were in Whistler Friday through Sunday (Jan. 21 to 23) skiing with WASP and enjoying the local hospitality as part of the Anything's Possible program. The program was started last year by part-time Whistler residents Bill and Barbara Norman, in partnership with WASP and with financial support from the American Friends of Whistler (AFOW).

Roberts, an army medic, suffered a shattered pelvis, left ankle and broken heel when his patrol vehicle hit an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan. He spent four months on his back and is now in a wheelchair. He's also dealing with a traumatic brain injury, which affects his memory.

At a dinner event to wrap up the Anything's Possible weekend, Roberts remarked on how friendly people are in Whistler and how he can't wait to come back.

"I absolutely loved the three days I spent here," he said.

CW2 Officer Justin Callahan, a helicopter pilot who was shot in the leg in Afghanistan just four months ago, was surprised to discover that he still has enough strength in his leg to snowboard. He said it was nice to get away from the daily grind of physical therapy and recovery to do something "normal" and "fun" again.

"When you get injured you never know what you're going to be able to do again," Callahan said. "It was very exciting to know I'm still able to (snowboard)."

The weekend was the third Anything's Possible trip, after last year's winter visit and a kayaking excursion in September. Another kayaking trip is planned for summer 2011.

Bill Norman said he thought of the idea of bringing injured U.S. troops to Whistler for outdoor recreation after hearing about a group called Hope for Heroism that helps injured Israeli soldiers put their lives back together. Norman and his wife Barbara wanted to give U.S. soldiers the opportunity to experience the activities and spirit of WASP's programs and volunteers, he said.

"We wanted to do it in an intimate, local way," he said. "The spirit of Whistler is embodied in these (WASP) volunteers."

The Normans open their home to the soldiers and medical personnel, and the Delta Whistler Village Suites also offers special rates for program participants. Everyone in Whistler has been gracious and accommodating to the soldiers, Norman said.

Norman sits on the AFOW board and Chair Rod Rohda said it was easy for the charity to get behind the Anything's Possible concept. The AFOW has so far donated more than $30,000 towards the program, he said.

"Clearly these servicemen have made huge sacrifices," Rohda said. "To be able to expose them to Whistler and to outdoor activities even after they've sustained the serious injuries they have seemed like a no-brainer."

Injured British soldiers experience Whistler

In a separate program, a group of seven British service personnel were in Whistler for four days this week to experience cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, dog sledding and snowmobiling.

The group was part of the U.K.-based Battle Back program, in conjunction with Vancouver-based You Can Event Management. Battle Back is managed by the Ministry of Defence in Great Britain to facilitate and encourage adaptive sport opportunities for wounded service personnel, to assist with their rehabilitation and return to an active life, according to a press release issued Monday (Jan. 24) by You Can Event Management.

"Battle Back uses sport in the physical and psychological rehabilitation of wounded service personnel to aid re-integration and confidence building," Major Dougie Peters of Battle Back said in a statement.

"Many wounded service personnel enjoyed alpine sports prior to being injured, and the expertise and facilities available in Vancouver and Whistler provide an accessible and supportive environment, ideal for introducing them to the wide range of adaptive winter sports available."

The group was also scheduled to spend time in Vancouver and Surrey with activities including a sledge hockey game.

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