“I thought he was trying to sell me a timeshare,” the Marine admits, a sheepish look in his dark eyes.
But the “too good to be true” offer was legitimate, as the smooth salesman on the other end of the line turned out to be Tom Iselin, executive director of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (SVAS). The non-profit organization has helped people with all manner of disabilities re-connect with recreation and is now in its second year of reaching out to wounded soldiers.
The program has been so well received that Sun Valley Adaptive Sports has recently partnered with the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Military Severely Injured Center which promotes the program to case managers and liaison officers in every branch of the military and, ultimately, directly to 4,000 injured service members.
In fact, the Department of Defense has asked Sun Valley Adaptive Sports to help the Center develop a model to allow other non-governmental organizations to work with the Center to provide sports and recreational rehabilitation services directly to service members. A national conference with the DOD is in the works to fine-tune plans.
In today’s program, veterans are invited to come and bring a companion, family or friend, for a seven-day stay. Donors and charitable foundations fund the program so there is no cost to the veterans. Iselin explains that this particular trip last March was designed to be a reunion for several Idaho Marines wounded with their tank unit in Iraq.
In May of 2005, Brumpton and Corporal Joe Lowe were patrolling near the Syrian border when the tank they were in ran over a bomb. The blast shattered Brumpton’s ankles and fractured his back. Lowe, the tank’s gunner, had his spinal cord severed. Corporal Joseph Danes was crushed when the 7-ton truck he was driving rolled over him twice, leaving him with massive internal injuries and a fractured back. Staff Sergeant Nathan Spaulding considers himself lucky. The mortar shell that tore into Spaulding’s hip and leg took the life of another soldier just 20 feet away.
All of them spent months in military hospitals and have returned to Idaho to lives that have changed to varying degrees. Throughout their tours of duty and rehabilitation, the Wood River Valley could have been nothing more than a tempting mirage.
“Imagine the river, and these beautiful mountains, and all the colors you see here and turn it all brown, brown, brown, and different shades of brown,” Spaulding says, describing the contrast between the stark Iraqi desert with Idaho’s rugged scenery.
And while Sun Valley’s postcard-like qualities have soothed more than one soul, Iselin and the SVAS staff are thinking bigger than sightseeing.
The 25-year-old Lowe, who is paralyzed from the chest down, agrees to give Nordic skiing a try. Wood River Valley resident Eric Schultz demonstrates the sled-like adaptation he uses almost everyday to stay in top shape despite an accident that left him without the use of his legs a few years ago. Lowe follows Schultz’ lead, maneuvering the ski-sled into the groomed grooves of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Headquarters trail.
Lowe’s tattooed triceps bulge as he poles through the firm spring snow. Like any first-time skier, he rejoices when the efforts of the gradual climb are rewarded with an easy downhill glide.
“My mom would cry if she could see me doing this,” Lowe says, his white T-shirt drenched with sweat. >>>
After skiing, the group gathers for lunch at Galena Lodge and conversation turns to mountain biking. “That used to be my thing,” Lowe comments, the reality of what he’s saying taking some of the exuberance from his face.
“It still can be,” Iselin insists. Sun Valley Adaptive Sports is committed to the wounded soldiers for the long haul, he explains. The program offers its adventure to veterans nationwide, but makes a concerted effort to contact vets in Idaho and neighboring states so they can routinely use the organization’s services. The Marines participating in the winter program all live in the Treasure Valley near Boise, just a few hours away. Iselin wants them to return to Sun Valley as many times as they can. “We’re not just about skiing,” he says. “If they want to learn to fly fish, we can help them do that. Kayaking, cycling, paragliding, windsurfing, golf . . . we’ll get them out there.”
Iselin says they also offer arts and crafts such as photography, woodcarving and pottery. Vets can even learn how to play a musical instrument.
“The vets are very excited about these other activities and we have found that they provide some of the most life-changing experiences for them.
“We’re an Idaho organization and we’re passionate about helping Idaho veterans,” Iselin continues. The energetic director seizes every chance he gets to remind these veterans that life is changed, not over. “We all have experiences that cause us pain and suffering,” he acknowledges.
“It’s how we react to those experiences that determine our character.”
Ski instructor Jen Smith couldn’t agree more. She’s in her second day of downhill skiing with Lowe. She introduced him to the mono-ski at Dollar Mountain a few days ago and now they have moved to Bald Mountain, upgrading Lowe’s ski system. While she’s tethered to Lowe, Smith says he’s now doing most of the work.
“Joe has a great, great attitude. To be six months post-injury and skiing is a phenomenon,” the veteran adaptive ski instructor and Sun Valley Adaptive Sports board member says. She seems to be having as much fun as her student.
“I would rather work with someone who is trying to figure out what they can do rather than what they can’t,” Smith explains. “In the end, we’ve all got the same goal—we’re all working on sliding down the mountain with the maximum amount of fun.”
Lowe is keeping his end of the bargain, each run more daring than the last. The exertion of doing everything with his shoulders and arms—the spinal cord injury left him without stomach muscles—is evident by day’s end. The next morning, he’s absent from breakfast at Sun Valley Lodge’s Gretchen’s restaurant, where the group starts each day. It’s easy to understand. Disabled or not, no one could have kept up the rigorous pace, the ceaseless activity.
But, no. “Joe’s already at the mountain,” Nate Spaulding announces, as he leisurely sips coffee with his wife, Angela. “They were out of here by seven to be the first ones on the lift.”
Later, Lowe shares the secret of his amazing renewal. The Sun Valley Adaptive Sports crew had arranged a massage at Zenergy for the vets. It was his first professional massage. “It felt like heaven,” he confesses, somehow guilty for the simple indulgence. >>>
Smith prepares Lowe to go to the top of the mountain on his third day of skiing. “What can I say? These guys are Marines. For them, this is nothing in terms of bravery.”
But the real courage required for Lowe, Brumpton, Danes and Spaulding is not facing the steepness of a mountain, but a life that is far more uncertain than it was when they left for Iraq.
Iselin thinks the time they spent in Sun Valley will make the transition easier.
“The reunion effect was just what I hoped for,” he says. “Their time that week motivated them to do things together at home. The relationship that they established in Iraq continues, and they have each other beyond this one event.”
The selflessness of the Marines shines through as Iselin presses each soldier to consider his goals and dreams. “We can make it happen,” he tells them, again and again. Brumpton, Danes, Spaulding and Lowe have become enthusiastic about spreading the word on Sun Valley Adaptive Sports.
“I’d just like to let other vets know about this tremendous opportunity,” Danes says.
Joe’s mother, Lori Lowe, says she saw an immediate change in her son when he returned from his ski trip. “It seems like having that week in Sun Valley started a new chapter in Joe’s life,” she said. “All of his life is a lot of work right now, and for him to get to just go have fun put some joy back in him. I look at the pictures from that week, and I see a smile that I haven’t seen in more than a year.”
“I just want to be a regular guy with a wife and kids,” Lowe says. “I know I won’t be able to wrestle and play football with my kids like my dad did with me. But I can do things like this,” gesturing to Baldy before he loads on the River Run chairlift for what has to be his eighth time of the day. “I can be a fun dad.”
To learn more about Sun Valley Adaptive Sports’ Higher Ground veteran’s program
or to sponsor a disabled veteran go to