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Climbing the ropes to ability

Disabled Sports USA is helping injured veterans and others discover the power of an unbroken spirit.

July 05, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva survived stepping on a landmine the first day of the ground war in Iraq, but he spent months in the hospital -- wishing he had died.

Flying shrapnel had shredded his right leg, forcing doctors to amputate it above the knee. His right arm and hand were mangled, and his left leg was broken.

Alva wondered whether he would ever be able to walk again.

"In the beginning, the hard part is not accepting your injury," he said. "You hate life. You hate what happened. You're angry, but you're mostly sad. I can remember day after day and countless weeks of nothing but crying."

At first, Alva was alone in the wards at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and then at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But as the war went on, dozens of soldiers were brought in -- almost all of them with similar injuries. Alva decided it was time to pull himself out of bed, learn to stand and then walk, with the help of a prosthetic leg.

By winter, the former marathon runner was in Colorado skiing, with the help of a team of Paralympic instructors. Last week in Long Beach, Alva and 25 other Iraq war veterans learned to rock climb, cycle and sail at the annual SummerFest hosted by Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit group that helps vets and civilians overcome even the toughest disabilities.

"I realize now that anything is possible," said Alva, 33, who is going back to college in his hometown of San Antonio this fall to study sports medicine. "I never believed it at first, but the saying is true: Time really does heal all wounds."

New recruits

Until the war started in Iraq nearly 16 months ago, Disabled Sports served mostly Vietnam veterans and disabled civilians. That's not the case anymore. Volunteers from the group visit military hospitals weekly, offering sports courses to dozens of permanently disabled soldiers. More than 50 vets injured in Iraq have joined.

"We want to help these guys who are coming back from Iraq with some pretty serious injuries," said Disabled Sports Executive Director Kirk M. Bauer, who joined the group 35 years ago after he lost a leg in Vietnam. "Their bodies are protected by their equipment but not their limbs, and that's what's being blown off by these roadside bombs and other devices.

"We want to show them that they can still lead a full life, and sports is an important tool."

The second annual SummerFest in Long Beach provided a mini-vacation for about 100 civilians and soldiers, their families and friends. For four days, the soldiers had their pick of classes, taught by volunteer instructors. Running, wheeling and scuba seminars were held at Millikan High School. On Mother's Beach, a quiet waterway about half a mile from the shore, people gathered in groups of 20 to learn how to water ski, canoe, cycle and rock climb. In the evenings, they met for dinner and took harbor cruises.

Joe Garrett, a San Diego man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in 1988, said he was surprised to see so many war vets. "It just blows me away that so many of these guys are coming back from Iraq, injured for life," said Garrett, who has been going to events hosted by Disabled Sports events for more than a decade. "It's sad, but I think it's excellent that they're here."

The participants included several recently injured soldiers, such as Army 1st Lt. Lonnie Moore, from Wichita, Kan., who lost a leg when his Bradley fighting vehicle came under heavy fire near Fallouja on April 6. He and his fiancee, Melanie Disbrow, arrived in Long Beach on June 27 after leaving Walter Reed's outpatient housing facility at dawn.

The following Monday, Moore and Disbrow teamed to learn how to canoe and sail. On Tuesday, they water-skied.

"Look, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I'm a big man and this injury wasn't a big deal," said Moore, who walks with a prosthesis. "There are a couple times I've really broken down. It gets challenging. But the great thing about being out here is everyone pushes and supports everyone else. It's nice to have a group of people who are going through the same thing you are."

Alva was determined to conquer the rock-climbing wall set up on a road along Mother's Beach. It was not an easy task. He had a hard time angling his prosthetic leg while pulling himself up with his injured hand. He would climb about 6 feet before he would lose his footing.

After several attempts, Alva had drawn a crowd of a dozen supporters, who chanted, "Go Marine!" At 20 feet up, Alva declared victory, grinning at his cheering fans. Strapped to safety ropes, he then eased himself down.

Next it was Army Sgt. Johnnie Williams' turn. The 21-year-old veteran from Tampa, Fla., was left paralyzed from the waist down when the Humvee he was riding in was run off a narrow road 100 miles northwest of Baghdad 13 months ago. He was thrown from the vehicle, which ran over him as it careened down an embankment.

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