Friday, July 2, 2010

In the Company of Heroes: Athlete Visit to the VA

Having driven bobsleds for about a decade now, there are days when I just have to look in the mirror and ask, "Is this really my life?!"

July 1st was definitely one of those days.

It started off early in the morning (too early for me) with two radio interviews with local stations 101.5 FM The Eagle and 103.1 FM Jack, both Salt Lake City-based. I met up with fellow athletes Brady Canfield (skeleton) and Rebekah Bradford (long track speedskating) at about 8:15am and we just sat there trading sport stories until it was time to go on air. I have to give props to Shannon Bahrke (freestyle skiing) who came down for the interviews, but we crossed signals due to a communication error. As I sat there listening to Brady and Rebekah, especially Rebekah's account of her time during the recent 2010 Games, I could only smile. We are lucky to be involved in these sports. Now, there were 3 reasons we went on the shows: 1. to share our experiences as American athletes at this 4th of July time, 2. to talk about an upcoming event at the Utah Olympic Oval for US Speedskating and 3. to talk about our important athlete-visit to the SLC Veteran's Hospital later in the day. I was able to talk The Eagle into asking its listeners to write letters for the veterans which we hand delivered during our visit.

Now, before you get too deep into my novel of a blog post, if you want to see pictures from our athlete visit to the Veteran's Hospital you can do so here.

With the interviews done, it was back to work for me for a few hours then off to the Veteran's Hospital to meet up with the other athletes that were kind enough to donate their time to help me pull off the visit.

When I first walked into the VA at around 1:45pm, I have to admit that a wave of...history poured over me. Perhaps history isn't the right word. I found myself carrying in a box of letters written by Utah residents for the vets with some stickers and pins dropped in and as I looked around at all the veterans in the waiting room and coming and going from the exit and I thought, "This isn't enough. Not for what they've done for our country." But then I saw the smiling faces of the other athletes and I knew we would make a difference this day.

Dick Winters, the legendary CO of Easy Company made famous by HBO's "Band of Brothers" miniseries once told his grandson that he wasn't a hero, but that he served in a company of heroes. As I looked at the group who came out for the visit, I felt the same way. I was in the company of heroes.

There was Debbie Clark, the tiny gymnastics athlete from the '72 Munich Games who still has all the energy and grace of a dancer. Besides being the President of the Utah Olympian Alumni Association, Debbie recently underwent a surgery herself, but no amount of downtown could keep her away from a chance to make a difference. She really was my mentor in planning this little get together.

There was Fuzz Fedderson, a three-time Olympian in the sport of freestyle skiing and co-founder of the extremely popular Flying Ace All-Stars group. Despite his full-schedule, Fuzz has always been willing to lend his support for our athlete service projects.

There was Bill Spencer, a retired Special Forces veteran and two-time Olympian in the sport of biathlon. Bill's easy smile and grandfatherly approach (said with much love Bill) brought a sense solidarity to our group. He and I were able to have several discussions throughout the afternoon about sport and military service. His quiet dignity would keep him from saying he's a hero, but as I listened to him recount his very recent medical prodcedures at the very hospital we were there visiting, plus the account of him facing enemy fire in Vietnam to rescue a wounded comrade (he later counted) 28 bullet holes in the helicopter, how can he not be viewed as a hero?

And coming back after our early morning interviews was Major Brady Canfield, U.S. Air Force retired and current writer and illustrator of the very entertaining Wombat Rue comic books. Not only was Brady a very successful athlete in the sport of skeleton, he served our country with honor, not to mention a fair amount of brain power. As he told Rebekah and I stories from his military days before our morning interviews, I couldn't help but think, "Another hero."

We had some amazingly talented Olympic hopefuls in the form of Joy Bryant (former luge, now skeleton) and Liz Swaney (skeleton). Both these ladies brought an energy and brightness into every room they visited that day. I also have to give props out to one of my pushers, Don Osmond, who despite running a business, working a full-time job and his recent engagement found the time to join us for part of the visit.

In the company of heroes? As I watched these great athletes, these great people, share their support, their gratitude and their encouragement with everyone they met that afternoon, I couldn't help but say "yes, I am in the company of heroes."

But they weren't the only heroes I saw that day.

All in all we visited about 75-80 veterans in about a two-hour time frame. I'm not sure how to put those individual experiences into words. Too quick a description wouldn't do it justice, but a full-review might tug at your heart strings just as it did ours.

How do you tell about the old, grandfatherly veterans with tubes in their nose and arms who smile as we introduced ourselves and then calmly say, "I was in Germany or Normandy or Africa"? How do you tell about the loving wives who spoon fed these men who once stared death in the face and fought for the liberty of the entire free world?

How do you talk about the pained look in an older, long-haired Vietnam veteran's eyes as we handed him his packet of thank-you letters, stickers and pins when he said, "But I didn't enlist, I was drafted" as if to say, "Are you sure I deserve this? I did my duty, but am I really good enough for this?"

Or how do you place into words the conversation with a crying wife as she explained that her husband, lying in the bed next to her chair, was suffering complications from Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used in Vietnam. "He wasn't even on the ground," she explained. "He got it from the ship he was on that they shipped Agent Orange on."

I do not mean to paint the visit as negative or depressing. Perhaps eye-opening is a better term. We sure had our fair share of fun as well, the visit was a memorable and very positive one for all. There were plenty of vets who we laughed with, shared personal stories with and, in those moments, became friends with. There were photo-ops with entire nursing stations and staff areas, and any veteran who asked if he could tell a joke found a willing audience. There was the warm and friendly janitor who helped us find our way when we became lost in the maze of hallways who went on to explain that she was retired Navy and was quite the athlete in her younger days. There was the nurse's aid who couldn't wait to shake all our hands or older vets who winked and flirted with our female athletes with a charm that must have been reminiscent of their younger glory days.

Perhaps one of my favorite moments, yet touching at the same time, came from a visit to one room with two veterans in it. The first veteran, a World War II vet, seemed to have lost his hearing, so we did the best we could, awkwardly shouting loud enough to be heard in the hall, and then stepped to the other side of the room/curtain and talked with another Vietnam vet who was laid out on his back, in obvious pain, but in brave and good spirits. After chatting for several minutes, we said our goodbyes and went to another room. Soon, a nurse came in, touched my arm and said, "Could you come back to room 13?" Back we went and this kind veteran quietly asked if we would all sign the envelope that contained his thank-you letters, just so he could remember who came to visit him.

And you must understand, these are only the experiences from my group. We split into two parties, so you're only getting half the story. I know the other half is just as full of uplifting moments and touching experiences.

As we made our rounds through the hospital, it really brought to my mind the saying that a little good can go a long way. How amazing it was to bring some light and fun into the lives of our veterans and the medical staff who serve them so well. Perhaps it was best expressed by one veteran who I chatted with who was just stopping by to pick up a prescription. We shook hands and with a twinkle in his eyes he said, "It is so wonderful that you all are here today. Some of these guys really need it, even just a visit." It wasn't what he said, it was how he said it. His tone reflected his inner feelings: "These are my comrades, my brothers and sisters. Thank you for looking out for them."

After our final goodbyes to the hospital staff, we walked out together, unified as athletes through service and the inner warmth it brings. Having planned two major hospital visits, the athletes kept asking me, "What are we doing next?"

Don't worry, there are plans in the works so stay tuned!

Thank you again to all the athletes who took the time to come help us serve. I appreciate your compassion and strength. Again, if you want to see some pictures from our visit you can do so here. And thank you to veterans everywhere who have served our country so honorably and sacrificed so much.

Happy 4th of July everyone!

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