VA New England Summer Sports Clinic 2016, Providence, Rhode Island

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This past week my husband (also a veteran) and I attended the VA New England Summer Sports Clinic hosted by the VA Boston Healthcare System. The event was held in Providence, Rhode Island. Although we were not sure what to expect, we were willing to give it a try because the event featured sporting activities. We both love to get outside and be in the here and now. We also both feel isolated in rural Maine so we looked forward to meeting other veterans and making new friends. This event was far better then we ever expected and we are so thankful that we worked through the fears of going to a new city and meeting up with new people. The event was well organized and the staff were supportive and encouraging.

The first day was registration and a golfing event at Button Hole Golf. We had driven from Maine so we were up at 4:30 in the morning so we could get to Rhode Island during the registration time frame. By the time we got there we were exhausted and our team leader understood that we wanted to rest that afternoon instead of attending the golfing event. We went for a walk in downtown Providence, grabbed a delicious bite to eat at Ocean State Sandwich Company, and then took a nap. We met up with the team at 4:30 p.m. for the opening ceremony dinner held at 12 Acres. It was there that we met our team members. We were assigned to the Fox team, which was one of four teams, and learned about our schedule for the next three days.

The first day consisted of water skiing in the morning and cycling in the afternoon. I had never been water skiing as an adult. I tried once in high school, fell, and hurt myself so I didn’t have a good experience with this sport. My husband water skied quite a bit during his childhood. He really wanted to do this. I told my husband I was not going water skiing. When we arrived at Johnson’s Pond we were immediately greeted by supportive VA and Adaptive Sports staff. One of the staff approached us, fitted us with a life jacket, and said come on, let’s do this. After learning that first I could try the sport with the assistance of a boom, I was more willing to try it. My husband got up on the first try. I used the boom to get comfortable with the sport and then tried the long line off the boom. They slowly let out the long line to familiarize me with the sport.

After getting comfortable with the sport of water skiing, I was willing to try it again except this time I was going to pull myself up behind the boat via the long line. For some miraculous reason, I was able to pull myself up behind the boat on the first try. I was able to stay up on the water skis for the length of the pond up until we turned around and I hit the wakes. I stumbled on the wakes on the way back and fell. But I was so proud of myself. I went from NO, I am not doing this to hey, I just did this. this experience built my confidence, made me happy that I overcame a fear, and taught me the sport of water skiing. And guess what? I love water skiing. Johnson’s Pond was beautiful and the water was incredibly warm and refreshing. If we had time, I would have tried it for a third time. I learned that I fell because I was too stiff and not bending my knees. I was pretty nervous. But, this was a great start to an amazing time.

Our afternoon event was cycling on the Coventry Bike Path. We were accompanied by two beautiful people as we rode the bikes. It was roughly six miles to the end of the trail so we biked it twice. The first time we rode the bikes leisurely and had some great conversation and the second time we rode the bikes as fast as we could so we could get back for a group meeting with the Chaplain and his wife who we rode the bikes with. After water skiing and cycling for 12 miles, we were ready to take a break. The Chaplain led a small group where we talked about how our injuries have impacted our lives. We also talked about ways to overcome some of the obstacles that may be holding us back from being the person we truly want to be. I felt so thankful for the opportunity to cycle on this beautiful bike path and then end it with this enlightened discussion with the Chaplain and other veterans.

The next day we had kayaking in the morning and sailing in the afternoon at Fort Adams State Park. I had become familiar with both these activities because of my involvement with Outward Bound for veterans, Soldier Ride-Wounded Warrior Project and the Home Base Program in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks to our Outward Bound kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands in Washington State, I was already familiarized with sea kayaking. I felt comfortable trying this again. The first time I went sailing with WWP, I experienced a lot of anxiety. I had never been sailing so I had a hard time with how much the sailboat leaned to one side or the other. To help me overcome my “out of control” feeling, our guide had me take the reigns to regain the control. It worked and my anxiety began to alleviate. The second time I sailed with Home Base Program, I felt more comfortable with the activity and the third time sailing with Sail to Prevail at this event was actually relaxing. The Narraganset Bay was beautiful and I look forward to visiting Newport, Rhode Island in the future.

Our last day was a choice between deep sea fishing or going to the beach. We chose the beach trip at Bristol Town Beach. We were exhausted after two days of sports but in a good way. We felt accomplished and satisfied with this sport clinic. We really appreciated how organized everything was. We have learned that we need direction while participating in these events. We get easily overwhelmed and the support and guidance through a new experience is key. We embraced this clinic and were thankful for the VA and Adaptive Sports staff who helped us along. Bristol Town Beach was part of a larger preservation area donated by the Samuel Colt family in 1968. We decided to go for a walk first in Colt State Park to check it out. It was beautiful. After taking a two mile walk, we went back to the beach and went swimming in the Narraganset Bay. Then we laid out in the sun while the VA staff and others grilled some burgers and hotdogs for us. After lunch we headed back to the hotel so we had time to get ready for dinner and an awards ceremony at 12 Acres.

By the time we got to dinner I was exhausted and starting to feel overwhelmed. I was sitting at our table with friends enjoying myself but the loud noise and chatter around the room was making me feel like I wanted to run. I felt like a caged animal and had to pull myself together. I had all I could do to eat my dinner I was so flipped out. But fake it until you make it, right? Then after dinner the VA Boston Healthcare staff recognized the Adaptive Sports organizations and others who helped make this event possible for us veterans and gave out awards to veterans. There were four award categories: water skiing, cycling, kayaking, and sailing. To my complete surprise (while I was flipping out inside) my name was called for the water skiing award category. I was stunned and overcome emotionally. I was recognized for the willingness to try a new sport I was afraid of prior to this sport clinic and for having a positive attitude.

This public recognition was validating because despite having compounded Post Traumatic Stress, I always try to improve and have a positive attitude. I was the same way while serving in the military. The award was a form of validation that I never got from military leadership. How I managed to last close to fifteen years in the military is beyond me given the rough start I had. It followed me throughout my entire career. But that too is behind me. I got the opportunity to tell my story in its entirety to show that although the deck was stacked against me, I still persevered and made it to Team Chief and E-6. And in the end, I lost my career because of someone else’s actions but I fought for my medical retirement and helped others because I took a stand. This award erased all the resentment I had for military leadership who never recognized my talents, leadership, and hard work, and instead gave me a hard time for the slightest perceived missteps. My experiences have taught me how to treat people and how not to treat people. I believe in the whole person concept, building on people’s strengths, and educating them to make them better. This event showed me that I can have a great team AND great leadership who also recognize me for my strengths.

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