Blind Veteran finds recovery on the slopes - VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System
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Blind Veteran finds recovery on the slopes

A Veteran on a ski-bike

Spending time on the slopes was something Marine Veteran Zachary Tidwell had enjoyed before he became a suicide survivor in March 2019. The ski-bike has become his favorite adaptive sport.

By Terri Rorke
Thursday, April 29, 2021

"I didn't cry about it until one of these events," said Marine Veteran Zachary Tidwell on a break before his next ski-bike ride on Eldora mountain.

Almost two years from the day he lost his sight and became deaf in one ear, Tidwell gathered with a small group of Veterans for the March 2021 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic event hosted by Ignite Adaptive Sports in Nederland, Colorado. With the previous two events canceled due to the pandemic, teams from VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System’s Recreation Therapy and Ignite Adaptive Sports found a way to hold a mini clinic for local Veterans this year.

Spending time on the slopes was something Tidwell had enjoyed before he became a suicide survivor in March 2019. While working through marital issues and already living with a traumatic brain injury post motorcycle accident, Tidwell was experiencing major depression and feeling isolated. He ultimately made the decision to shoot himself in the face, recalling that suicide felt like the only option because he was not talking to anyone about what he was going through.

A Veteran on a rock-climbing wall
Tidwell says adaptive sports has played a major role in his recovery. “Having all these things like rock climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking and this Winter Sports Clinic has been huge. Now I’m back in college, taking a full course load. I have my own house now. Without having this stuff, I think I’d be in a rut still.”

Tidwell has no recollection of what happened after he decided to pull the trigger, only that he awoke in a hospital surrounded by people ready to support him in his recovery. Soon after he got home, Tidwell connected with Recreation Therapist Jessica Conyers who introduced him to the many no-cost adaptive sports opportunities available to Veterans with physical disabilities. Conyers works closely with enrolled Veterans to find ways for them to re-engage in a past leisure activity or try a new sport following an injury or disability.

Tidwell credits adaptive sports with contributing greatly to his recovery because he gets to be active and connect with other Veterans who can relate to his disabilities and military experience. He calls these events “the tip of the iceberg” in a judgement-free zone for Veterans like himself. “No one walks around you on eggshells anymore,” said Tidwell. “And you get that camaraderie fix that you don’t get anywhere else.”

Whether its adaptive skiing, whitewater rafting or rock-climbing, Conyers said, “One of my favorite parts of these events is seeing friendships forged that continue into Veterans’ day-to-day lives.”

“During the time of the pandemic, social isolation has been a problem, and it is nice to provide Veterans with an opportunity to safely socially engage in the great outdoors while participating in positive leisure time pursuits,” she added.

A Veteran on a rock-climbing wall
VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System partners with community organizations like Ignite Adaptive Sports to provide opportunities for disabled Veterans. Ignite Adaptive Sports provides children and adults with disabilities access to Colorado’s outdoor winter sports: alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ski biking and snowshoeing lessons. “Our mission is to ignite personal growth, independence and confidence in people with disabilities on the Front Range, and in surrounding mountain and Northern Colorado communities, by providing caring, safe and fun adaptive winter snow sports opportunities.”

Despite all he’s been through, Tidwell encourages other Veterans to speak up about their experiences—even when it feels uncomfortable. It’s one of the reasons sharing his story as a suicide survivor is something Tidwell doesn’t mind doing.

“Sometimes people get weird about it, but I think people need to hear it. People dont talk about it enough, he said.

As Tidwell now works toward a degree in Clinical Psychology from CU Denver, he wants to turn his experience around by helping others recognize that help is always an option.

“You owe it to yourself and those around you to work on it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will get better.”

In addition to the Winter Sports Clinic, VA also provides adaptive sports opportunities through the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the National Veterans Golden Age Games, the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival, the National Disabled Veterans Tee Tournament and more. If you are interested in learning more about any national or local recreation therapy programs, please talk with your primary care provider to see if the outpatient recreation therapy program may be a good fit for you.

Any Veteran in a crisis, or anyone concerned about a Veteran, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), available every day, 24/7. Caring, qualified responders can also be reached confidentially via text at 838255.

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