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Veteran’s Day Blog: The 2014 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

In honor of Veteran’s Day tomorrow, we are posting an article written by FCA Family Consultant, Christina Irving, who attended and provided instruction to military caregivers at the 2014 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, earlier this year. She summarizes her experience below.

Between March 30th and April 4th 2014, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic was held in Aspen Snowmass in Colorado.  For 28 years, this event has brought together over 300 Veterans to ski, scuba dive, kayak, play sled hockey, rock climb and participate in other adaptive sports and educational workshops. And standing at the base of the mountain or climbing wall, and outside the boards of the ice rink, were their caregivers—family members who have stood alongside these veterans, often through months or years of rehab since returning home from service. Whether the participating veterans were physically changed due to amputation or spinal injury, cognitively altered from traumatic brain injuries, or psychologically affected from post-traumatic stress disorder, their caregivers have been there. They stood cheering on their Wounded Warriors determined to work with their disabilities to find enjoyment and challenge through sport, recreation and the great outdoors.

New to this year’s Winter Sports Clinic were two classes specifically for these family caregivers. Following the passage of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, the VA began offering educational and supportive programs to caregivers of Veterans. They focus on self-care for family caregivers, addressing Problem Solving & Effective Communication, Stress Management, Taking Care of Yourself, and Utilizing Technology for Caregivers.

The majority of caregivers in these classes are women caring for their husbands, but there are also husbands caring for wives, parents once again caring for their children, as well as siblings and in-laws. Many of the caregivers describe the difficulty in seeing these strong warriors struggle with issues of dependence: how to come to terms with their own value and self-worth when so much of their identity was based on their leadership abilities in the military. Through these classes caregivers find camaraderie and support, in addition to learning skills to help them become even more resilient and adaptive.

It was fitting that this same week the RAND Corporation released the report Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers. The 5.5 million military caregivers are warriors themselves, leading their families into new and unfamiliar territory. Caregivers are the backbone of long-term care in the US and considering how young many of these post 9/11 Veterans are, we’re going to be relying on their caregivers for a long time. The caregivers of Vietnam and Korean-era Veterans often act as role models for these younger caregivers, sharing tips on dealing with PTSD, navigating the often complicated medical systems, and how to explain to kids and other family members why dad is uncomfortable in crowds.

Through the classes offered at this year’s Winter Sports Clinic, the caregivers explored how to fit self-care into their very busy lives, the importance of monitoring their own health, and the need to find support for themselves. They talked about the struggles they faced, their fears and frustrations, and how they are able to find humor and joy in spite of it all. But of course it was the sight of their loved ones, the veterans—whether scaling up the climbing wall or passing overhead in ski lifts then flying smoothly down the mountain—that was truly inspiring. [Additional photos from the event can be found on our Pinterest page.]

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