Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sailing with Soldiers

Prior to my days in high school, the only real facts I knew about the Vietnam War was that my dad was there, and that he remembers the song Like A Bridge Over Troubled Troubled Water playing on the radio as he was driving across a bridge in Vietnam. At the sailing session of the USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp, there is spoken and unspoken language about what's happening as we took recently injured men and women of the U.S. military sailing. It is truly a challenge to describe the moments that made sailing with these individuals such a moving experience.

It's moments like this: sailing with someone who can't walk, spontaneously decides that he wants to switch from the leeward to windward rail after watching me during tacks. And when he stumbles, being the hand that's going to get him across the boat before he has to ask for help. It's when it's clear a person with a relatively new disability is uncomfortable with the boat heeled over, but will only nod and say, "I've got my lifejacket." Off the water it's things like helping an Army veteran clean his sunglasses as he realizes he's never had salt water dry on his lenses before.

What this sailing camp does is expose these heroes to something radically new and fun. In the words of one man I was sailing with, one of the worst parts of being wounded is that you're not allowed to do your job anymore. After being in a world structured around combat, where does one go when that is taken away? In a program designed to introduce Paralympic sports to the military active duty and veterans with us today, one day of sailing might give someone a place to go. Even if it's not one person's "cup of tea", in the words of USSTAG's Paralympic Coach Betsy Alison, it's still a day of exposure to a new element.

What many of the participants in the Paralympic Military Camp said they liked about sailing was the sense of freedom. One man I sailed with went so far to say that sailing for him was scarier than the combat zone, just because it was so unfamiliar. The others in the boat nodded silently, clutching the rail. Hearing something like that about an activity I do almost every day from a man who is normally in a wheelchair, puts things in new perspective.

At the end of the day, the group I was sailing with generally agreed that once they mentally adjusted to the fact that it's okay for the boat to tip and it's okay to get wet- sailing was actually kind of fun. And it's thanks to Betsy Alison (Paralympic Coach), Maureen Mckinnon-Tucker (Paralympic Gold Medalist), Jim Donahue (a wounded Vietnam veteran himself), the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Paralympics, and the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics athletes for making the day happen.

Apart from everyone's interaction during sailing, more significant was for them, I believe, was to meet other disabled men and women who have pursued and succeeded at the sport. Half of the problem for recently wounded military is not knowing where to go next, and seeing what sailing has done for similar people was inspiring.

At the end of the day, watching a U.S. Marine hoist the spinnaker of a SKUD-18 with an ear-to-ear grin gives hope that these heroes will find something just as amazing in the next chapter of their lives.

1 comment:

  1. so you enjoyed a lot. i always like this type of Corporate outing really.