Making peace: Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports helps veterans readjust to life after combat
September 1, 2013
Steamboat Springs — His argument is simple but persuasive.
It's been nearly a decade since Aaron Bugg's world was turned upside down while serving in the Army in Iraq. An improvised explosive device, hidden underneath a wheelbarrow parked in front of a police station, detonated Sept. 29, 2004, shredding in an instant Bugg's Humvee and, along with it, most of the left side of his body.
The muscles and large chunks of bone were shorn from his left leg, and eight years, 11 months and two days later, doctors still want to amputate.
"But, man, that's my leg," Bugg said, reaching down impulsively, grabbing it.
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His hands can wrap easily around a limb so weak it provides only sporadic use and almost constant pain.
"That's my leg," Bugg said again, his voice straining. "I was born with it, you know. I accomplished a lot with it. I can't just say, 'Cut off my leg' and be OK with it."
But on a cool August day in the mountains above Steamboat Springs, Bugg didn't need to look far to be reminded what that leg, brittle as it may be, still could do.
That revelation was the whole point of visiting Steamboat — for Bugg, anyway. Deep in the mountains, nearly a decade after he was injured, he found his strength.
The veteran traveled from his Denver home to Steamboat for the STARS and Stripes Heroes Camp, and with about a dozen other disabled veterans and a few volunteers, he made camp about 30 minutes north of town on the banks of Hahn's Peak Lake.
There, in the solitude of the wilderness but surrounded by new friends, he found peace.
"Being out here, it opens my heart," Bugg said.
The Wounded Warrior Project calculates that there have been 51,303 service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 plus an estimated 320,000 men and women who've sustained traumatic brain injuries and 400,000 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's an influx of wounded veterans that has led to headline-grabbing deluges at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and, away from those government hallways, single-handedly has changed the face of the nation's disabled charities.
Groups locally and nationally have found that reaching out to help America's wounded warriors is good for the soul.
Finding peace has been a constant journey for Bugg since he woke up on a hospital bed with his leg in a cast.
In that moment, he thought everything would be OK. He'd survived the damage to his leg, and he'd survived the severed nerves in his left arm, which also had absorbed much of the blast.
As soon as they took the cast off, he'd move on with his life. That's what he expected, anyway.
"I thought my leg was brand new," he said.
It wasn't. What Bugg found under that cast was a limb ravaged by an explosion that had cut arteries and destroyed nerves. It was weak enough that he snapped it a year after the initial injury in a fall from a scooter, and he's dealt with stress fractures in the bone ever since.
His arm was so numb, he began wearing a chainmail glove so he'd stop cutting into his hand while cooking. His leg, meanwhile, proved good for only a couple of hours per day.
"I can use it, but I pay for it," he said. "Every impact, every hit, it transitions all the way up through my leg. The muscle is gone so the durability is not there. If I'm up on it for a long period of time, the blood flow doesn't return."
Working with some of the many disabled veterans programs, such as the local nonprofit Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, Bugg found help and inspiration, and that's exactly what he got a big dose of during his August trip to Steamboat.
Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, or STARS, is in the midst of massive growth.
The program is focused on helping introduce people with disabilities to sports and the outdoors, hoping to use those activities to help enrich lives so often mired in depression following life-altering injuries.
When participation swelled around spring break, with disabled men and women, boys and girls flocking to STARS' Steamboat Ski Area office for a day on the slopes, the program nearly had to turn someone away for the first time.
"We were close," Executive Director Julie Taulman said. "We had a wait list, but someone would wake up and feel ill and not come in that day, so we were able to make it work."
STARS has sustained a client increase of 30 percent each year for the past five years, and participation was up 50 percent this summer. Along with its client numbers, the program's budget has ballooned from $60,000 five years ago to $425,000 this year.
About 75 percent of that comes from donations in some form, be it cash from private sources, proceeds from fundraisers or in-kind gifts, such as food or lodging for particular events.
Nearly 100 volunteers help out the organization each year, offering everything from free ski lessons to hamburger grilling.
Nothing brings in the donations quite like veterans camps, and that popularity has allowed STARS to join a national trend shifting focus to that category. Disabled veterans long have participated in STARS events, such as the All Mountain Ski and Ride Camp, but the organization put on its first veterans-only event last winter — a version of the STARS and Stripes Heroes Camp on snow.
That event gives a long weekend of skiing — transportation, lodging, food and lessons included — to 23 veterans for free. The summer version, which took place in mid-August, brought a dozen more disabled veterans to Steamboat. Grants helped with some of the finances, especially in the winter, but the summer program was financed entirely by private donations — $10,000 in cash as well as goods and services.
"No matter where you go, when you tell people you're doing something for vets, it's 'What do you need? How can I help?'" said Craig Kennedy, who leads the veterans camps for STARS.
He saw that generosity yet again as he prepared for the August camp. He was looking for firewood for the camping portion of the event and put out the call on his Facebook page. He quickly got several offers and soon had another person promising to pay for any firewood that had to be bought.
"Steamboat is a giving community for other things, too, but when we mention wounded vets, it's even more," said Kennedy, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a 1996 skiing accident.
Bugg can make his leg stop hurting. That's not the problem.
It's how he makes it stop hurting that's translated into trouble.
"The VA provides me medication that masks the pain," he said. "That just masks the reality, though. In reality, the legs are taking a beating. The mind is saying, 'No pain,' but when the medication is gone, the pain comes back anyway."
Dealing with other scars from his time in Iraq has been easier in some strange way. He graduated in 2011 from the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in psychology, and as part of his education, he traveled abroad to the University of Jordan in Amman.
"I wanted to go back to the Middle East and try to understand Arabic and Islam from a different perspective from what the military tells you," he said. "The military taught me how to move, shoot, communicate and kill. That's one side of life. I went back and saw guys my age sitting in class next to me wanting to learn, asking questions. It was a good way to open my mind.
"The Army said these guys are killers. Some of them are killers, but not all."
Now, he's days away from starting a master's program at the University of Denver, focusing on disaster psychology. He's not entirely sure where that will lead, just that it will involve helping people when they need it the most.
"Going back over there cured me," he said.
It didn't do anything for the daily ache in his leg, and eventually Bugg decided the medication wasn't doing the job, either.
The pills kept him complacent but dulled, and they made life tolerable but not enjoyable.
"It's two different truths," he said. "I have the truth I get from taking the meds, but in reality, the pain is there, even if you're masking it."
He began to embrace a life without the pills, and that meant changes. He went to the VA and got a wheelchair he uses to get around campus. It helps him conserve his leg's strength rather than cover its weakness.
At the first STARS and Stripes Heroes Camp in Steamboat in January, he learned even more, relishing in the peace he found. He learned how to be in the outdoors participating in sports, as he did before his injury, and how to do so in disabled-friendly ways. He learned to use adaptive equipment that allowed him to do it all without pushing his body beyond the brink.
"Craig, he showed us a new way of living," Bugg said.
Seeing disabled people embrace that new way of living is what it's all about for Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, one of the organizations that lends a hand to local groups such as STARS.
He lost his leg to a grenade during an ambush in Vietnam in 1969 and knows firsthand the power that sports can have for those veterans returning from war.
"It turned my life around," he said. "It took seven operations to put me back together, and during that time, I started feeling really negative, laying in bed. I made a checklist of all the things I could no longer do, or at least the things I thought I could no longer do. Turns out, it wasn't true."
A skiing trip to Lake Tahoe helped turn his attitude around, allowing him to get out of bed, away from his crutches and back into the world.
That depression Bauer battled is rampant in today's veterans, regardless of whether they've lost limbs. A 2012 study by the VA showed as many as 22 veterans per day commit suicide. The problem is greatest with older veterans — nearly 70 percent of those who committed suicide were 50 or older.
Still, the problem is a major one for those returning from the past decade's conflicts. A 2013 survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed 30 percent of veterans who responded had considered suicide.
Numbers from other surveys indicate that programs like Disabled Sports USA can make a difference. A 2009 study showed its participants are twice as likely as average Americans with disabilities to be employed. Soldiers who had taken part in the Wounded Warrior Project were twice as likely as average disabled Americans to be physically active, and they reported living a healthier lifestyle.
"They are dealing with all this negativity, and what they need at that point is to do something positive that makes them believe in themselves again," Bauer said. "That's what the sports do."
Bauer found his confidence in that ski camp in Tahoe, but the world of accessible sports programs aimed at veterans is entirely different from the one that helped save him four decades ago. This year, Disabled Sports USA will partner in 180 camps and programs across the country.
A decade ago, a few volunteers helped some of the first amputees from the Iraq war learn to ski in an event in Breckenridge. In 2003, there were three veterans at that event. Bauer expects 130 at the next version, 11 years later.
The ramifications of that growth extend beyond benefits to veterans. Veterans make up about 6 percent of Americans with disabilities, and programs such as Disabled Sports USA and STARS spend much of their time focused on helping the other 94 percent.
But the time invested in veterans pays off for everyone.
"People are very interested in donating to the wounded warriors, but the wounded warriors have opened eyes to other people with disabilities," Taulman said. "For the whole world of adaptive sports, it's getting more people interested in helping programs, and that's helping general kids and adults who might have been injured."
Aaron Bugg is well aware of the benefits that come from a week with STARS in Steamboat. He and his wife, Lisa, learned to ski in January. He opted for a sit-ski because he didn't trust that leg, and he beamed as bright as the snow when Lisa began to figure things out on two skis.
This summer's camp featured a day of water skiing at Bald Eagle Lake. The group then trekked north to Hahn's Peak Lake, stopping at a private zip line on the way. They got fly-fishing instruction from Steamboat Flyfisher owner Tim Kirkpatrick and took to the water in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.
The men and women hailed from various corners of the country. Bugg and a few others made the trip from Denver. Several came from Chicago, and VA recreation therapist Emily Potter brought five of her patients from Salt Lake City for the weekend.
Some were confined to wheelchairs. One man had no arm. Others showed no obvious signs of injury. They all greeted the day with delight as it proved to be a vacation from their struggles and proof of life after injury, life after war.
"For years, you sit in a wheelchair and on crutches. You kind of live in a bubble," Bugg said. "You don't want to do anything to mess up that little world, but when you come out here and meet Craig, and he's skiing 60 miles an hour down the side of a mountain, you realize it's not impossible."
Bugg waterskied one day then paddled through the water in a kayak the next. Volunteers cooked corn on the cob as dusk approached, and the veterans came in from the lake. All the ingredients for kabobs were set out, and a cooking fire was lit.
Potter strummed her guitar under the stars later that night as the group sat around the campfire swapping stories, reminiscing about the day and soaking in the night.
The battlegrounds never are far away for a soldier who has been to war, but with every day of the camp, they seemed a little farther gone.
"Coming from your living room to being back outdoors again, it's amazing," Bugg said. "These guys do a great job of helping us explore and conquer.
"It's life changing."
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com