Wounded veterans find therapy on ski slopes

Posted By: The Ski Channel on March 12, 2010 3:26 pm

Great piece by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden of the American Forces Press Service:

MERCERSBURG, Pa., March 12, 2010 – Matthew Bilancia addresses the slopes like a man on a mission, cutting and edging his snowboard down the mountain with the confidence and passion of someone who’s been doing it all his life.

But beneath the thick pants and poised facade, the former Air Force senior airman bears the source of his determination: a scar on his right knee that reminds him of all the doctors and physicians who once told him, “Walking would be difficult. Forget about sports and athletics.”

Bilancia was one of four wounded warriors and disabled veterans to participate yesterday in what is expected to be one of the few remaining days of the winter sports season at Whitetail Resort here. He and the others came together with the USO of Metropolitan Washington and the Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation to prove to themselves that rehabilitation is more than pain killers and doctor recommendations.

“I’ve been using snowboarding and hand cycling and weight lifting to manage my pain for the past three years,” Bilancia, a New Jersey native, said. “I think by using different sports and athletics, it keeps you from being depressed. It manages my depression and post-traumatic stress. It’s great to able to use those things instead of the medication.”

Bilancia shattered his knee in July 2002 when the motorcycle he was driving was rear-ended by a car. He was stationed with the Air Force in Tucson, Ariz. Every ligament in his knee was damaged, and his entire leg eventually became septic. Doctors began working to save his leg and were successful, but the results were troubling, to say the least, he said.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to snowboard, and the doctors told me I’d basically have a hard time walking, [and] that I’d never be able to run or jog,” Bilancia said, referring to a post-surgery doctor’s consultation he received in 2008. “They said participating in athletics would be extremely difficult, if not near impossible.”

Bilancia still takes some medications, but in smaller doses. He also spends less time at the doctor’s office now than in previous years. And through adaptive sports, he’s cut his annual pain medication intake by more than half, he said, adding that he hopes to start his own nonprofit organization one day to teach others to do the same.

“I want to teach people how to use athletics to manage their pain by endorphin release and flow of adrenaline in their bodies, as opposed to narcotics,” he explained. “My goal is to help individuals understand they don’t need to rely on the medicines. They don’t have to listen to all the negativity from doctors, saying they’ll never do this or they’ll never do that again. It’s just a matter of mind over matter.”

Bill Dietrich, executive director and founder of Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation, echoed Bilancia’s philosophy and said he is humbled by the opportunity to work with wounded military veterans and individuals with disabilities.

“It’s an incredible therapy for these guys, and it’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm they get from being out here,” said Dietrich, who’s been a certified ski instructor here since 1990. “Working with the wounded warriors I’ve had a chance to get to know this winter, all of them bring an incredible amount of determination and will power and desire to learn. I’m even looking forward to some of them become instructors themselves.”

Dietrich noted retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Isenhour, who suffers severe brain damage from an automobile accident in 2004, for the impact snowboarding has had on his rehabilitation. Isenhour is a perfect example of how a traumatic event can be overcome through adaptive sports therapy, Dietrich said.

“The first time Brian came out, he could barely walk without assistance,” he said. “He really had me scratching my head about what he was going to be able to accomplish. But seven or eight trips later, he’s snowboarding, and his friends tell me that he’s happier and more optimistic than they’ve seen him in a long time.

“It gives me a lot of satisfaction and pride to be involved in helping people cope with life-changing circumstances, and it’s extremely rewarding to see some like Brian progress and enjoy life again,” Dietrich continued.

Army Spc. Les Timms, who’s currently assigned to a wounded warrior transition unit at Fort Belvoir, Va., views USO and the Two Top adaptive sports programs a little differently. He said he believes that all servicemembers, especially those who’ve deployed to combat, should take advantage of outings such as this, which are offered through the USO and installation morale, welfare and recreation offices.

The Virginia Army National Guardsman described “protecting America and our homeland” as a stressful job, regardless of being injured or not. Anyone who’s ever served understands the heavy burdens of preserving freedom, he said.

“Skiing helps me rehabilitate mentally just as much as it helps me physically,” said Timms, who injured his left shoulder in a vehicle rollover accident in Afghanistan in June. “These programs do help out to get your mind off things, and I’d recommend this to all soldiers, whether they’re hurt or not. It helps to clear your mind, and it’s just a peaceful scenario where you’re just having fun.”

The USO of Metropolitan Washington provides outreach and services to veterans and their families in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. The nonprofit organization often teams up with others, such as Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation, to connect veterans and their families with services and opportunities to improve their morale and well being and to show support for their service to the nation.