The ability to connect with a disabled Veteran at the fly-fishing event through the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic came naturally for high school junior Austin Hawkins, a member of the Air Force ROTC from Glenwood Springs High School.
“My sister has a visual impairment and so I know how to approach and talk to people with visual difficulties,” he said.
Hawkins and visually impaired Army Veteran Hardy Alexander of Hampton, Virginia fly-fished for the first time in Basalt, Colorado. “We wanted to learn, so we tried together. I cast the rod out and he reels it in,” Hawkins said. “No bites, but we’ve gotten some nibbles.”
The joy of volunteering is felt by the entire Air Force ROTC group, led by retired Chief MSgt. Paul Nunemann, a former KC-135 boom operator. “The ROTC came to greet the Veterans at the airport, and many of the Veterans were brought to tears. It was great to see.”
His local ROTC group of 80 cadets performs community service about once a month. “It opens their eyes,” he said.
Thirteen Glenwood Springs Air Force ROTC cadets were part of more than 600 volunteers who participated in various capacities during Winter Sports Clinic, helping register people, aiding Veterans in and out of equipment, fulfilling transportation needs and guiding participants to their sports activities. The Aspen Elks Lodge was also on hand hosting the fly-fishing activity and helping provide and serve lunch at various locations throughout the week.
“We’re a group with a benevolence problem,” jokes Bob Cook, a member of the Aspen Elks Lodge #224. The Elks fraternity’s 200 lodge and community members donated more than 2,000 volunteer hours this week, also providing more than 300 access ramps distributed, collected and stored each year. Additionally, the Elks coordinated four professional fishing guides who donated their time, rods and reels for the week-long clinic. Cook said his group has played a large role in what he believes is one of the largest disabled Veteran events in the country.
During a week when all eyes are focused on the rehabilitation and joy of serving disabled Veterans, one San Diego Veteran revealed the act of volunteering is what makes her feel worthwhile. Navy Veteran Gileen Paschal says while the Winter Sports Clinic was the first inflection point to transform her life, it’s the VA and their ongoing care that she uses to be successful in her everyday life.
“I know what the VA has done for me,” says Paschal, “and they are the reason I am who I am and what I know today. They’ve changed my life—no other healthcare would do that. The VA has changed my life, period. And so, I volunteer as a way to give back and say ‘thank you.’”
“Before I was tripping over people, and this schooling the VA sent me to taught me how to navigate my new world.” Paschal says whether it’s trying new activities during the Winter Sports Clinic or helping in the Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Department at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, she believes it’s important helping people with any impairments understand it’s not the end of their life.
“I want people to see all we are capable of; we shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Kara Fort joined VA as a contractor in 2016. She is the granddaughter, daughter and sister of Navy Veterans. She works for HMS TECHNOLOGIES, INC a service-disabled, Veteran-owned small business based in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and gold sponsor of the event.