2nd annual STARS & Stripes Heroes Camp a chance for veterans to bond, recreate
January 26, 2014
Steamboat Springs — On the slopes, it's hard to tell that Chris Chatwin hasn't snowboarded in more than a decade. He rides around with relative ease.
And on the surface, it's nearly impossible to realize Chatwin also is only about a year removed from an adult life spent completely in the military, or that the 34-year-old was shot twice in the leg during an ambush in Afghanistan in 2001.
Chatwin — like many of the others taking part in the second-annual STARS & Stripes Heroes Camp during the weekend — also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. At about the same time Chatwin was diagnosed with PTSD, he found out he has sarcoidosis, an inflammation disease that attacks his heart, brain, eyes and lungs. It's a byproduct from six tours’ worth of breathing dangerously polluted air in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sure, Chatwin's many years of military service haven't dealt him the strongest hand since he retired from that life at the age of 33.
Recreational programs like the STARS & Stripes Heroes Camp, though, ensure that people like Chatwin move on to the next phase of their lives — post military — with confidence.
"We're looking for long-term results," Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports program director Craig Kennedy said. "We're looking for measurable outcomes. So five years down the road, if we work with the same client, (we want to know) what has happened to them. Are they more confident and comfortable around crowds? Has their PTSD decreased?"
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The camp is something Kennedy saw as a way for wounded warriors — those injured post 9/11 — to build camaraderie after some of the most difficult times of their lives. Kennedy said it's also a way for the elders not labeled “wounded warriors” to bond with and lead those recently retired from military life.
The funding helps, too, with dollars and grants through organizations like the Wounded Warriors Project and Warfighter Sports helping make recreational camps a possibility.
Chatwin's PTSD still lingers. The military was all he was good at since he enlisted at age 17. But programs like STARS and other adaptive recreational services have helped Chatwin meet people like Randall Steiger, another snowboarder in their STARS & Stripes group.
Steiger and Chatwin haven't known each other for very long, but the two act like brothers, with their military background their bond.
"It's hard to meet people when you're diagnosed with PTSD," Chatwin said. "When I got out, I got sick right after. This is what this trip is for — getting me out doing stuff. This guy right here, he will be my friend for life, and vice versa."
A more noticeable disability
Unlike Chatwin and Steiger, Steven Hancock's post-military disabilities are much more noticeable.
Hancock, of Pueblo, has been forced to get through life in a wheelchair since April 2, 2010, after he fell five stories onto his back in a propelling accident while serving in Japan as a military policeman. The fall severed his spine, broke his leg and arm and left him with a minor brain injury.
Hancock also has PTSD. With the help of his guide dog, Buddy, and the right mix of medication and therapy, the disorder is manageable.
The STARS & Stripes Camp also gives him an opportunity he usually doesn't get — to be around and recreate with those living with the same disabilities.
"I like it," Hancock said. "Most of my friends aren't in chairs, so just being around other people in chairs and with disabilities is kind of like your extended family. You just feel comfortable around people who are injured, as well."
The camp is an opportunity Hancock wasn't afforded a year ago. He spends most of the year competing on the national and international level for shot put and discus but was unable to get in a sit-ski during the inaugural STARS & Stripes Heroes Camp last year.
Being in a wheelchair came with some extra pounds, but since his gastric bypass surgery, he has shed 100 of those pounds and was able to take on the mountain for the first time since his accident.
Some days are better than others, he said. But he also sees improvements.
"It's been on and off," Hancock said. “Everyone goes through their own phases. Me, I found throwing discus and shot put. That's kind of my calling card right now, throwing. I like to do stuff year round, so being able to do the winter sports is beneficial."
Building confidence, happiness and everlasting relationships
Throughout the weekend, Craig Kennedy saw a lot of recurring faces from STARS' previous winter and summer recreational camps, and he loves it.
The STARS & Stripes Heroes Camp may only last one weekend, but if Kennedy can get the message out that STARS' door is always open, he knows he has been successful.
"In the past, it's always been we'll have one event, and a lot of these guys just go to one a year and they're really happy for a week, but then they come home and they crash," Kennedy said. "They aren't happy at all."
There are about 6,000 suicides each year from the troops coming home overseas, he said, and it's a number that circles around in his head.
He wants those long-term results from STARS’ camps to wrestle that number down. More than anything, he wants the wounded warriors from the weekend to go home with happy thoughts, confidence and relationships that won't recede.
"A lot of the ones this year came back with big hugs and calling each other 'brother,'" Kennedy said. "It's absolutely huge. You get a lot of long-lasting relationships out of this camp, for sure."