Snowmobile therapy: Disabled veterans hit trails, mountains
03/14/2013 11:45 AM
03/14/2013 2:09 PM
They came to ride and reconnect, and easily mixed with the dozens of volunteers who helped coordinate the inaugural Disabled Veterans Snowmobile Ride.
Many of the 13 wounded veterans who participated had never ridden a snowmobile, including Chris Tschida of Meridian, who lost a hand and sustained other injuries when an insurgent tossed two grenades into his tank in Iraq. Tschida wears a prosthetic hook on his left arm, but it didn't stop him from joining his fellow veterans and trying out snowmobiling.
"I'm trying to see how far I can go," he said.
Tschida and his fellow veterans are all at least 50 percent disabled from combat wounds or other service-related injuries.
SAVED BY SNOWMOBILES
The Disabled Veterans Snowmobile Ride was the brainchild of Josh Callihan of Boise and done in cooperation with a small army of volunteers from the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and several Treasure Valley businesses.
Callihan was a Marine in the Iraq War. In 2001, he took four bullets, including one that hit his lower spine.
After his initial surgery, he remembers a doctor telling him he probably wouldn't live, and if he did, he'd be paralyzed from the waist down.
Callihan spent six months in hospitals recuperating, and eventually regained feeling in his legs and relearned to walk, but he still doesn't have full use of his right leg.
He loved snowboarding while growing up in Coeur d'Alene, but could no longer do it, so he turned to snowmobiling.
"I noticed they were sitting down, and I thought that looked like something I could do," Callihan said. "As my body got stronger, I could see my snowmobiling getting better."
Recovering from his physical injuries was only part of the healing, and snowmobiling helped with the emotional side.
"I loved being a Marine, and my identity kind of formed around being a Marine," Callihan said.
Losing that identity, he said, was as difficult as the injuries he suffered. Snowmobiling helped him in both cases.
There's a camaraderie among snowmobilers that is similar to what he found in the Marines, he said. Marines and snowmobilers both watch out for each other, leave no one behind and like to have fun.
"As corny as it sounds, snowmobiling saved my life," Callihan said. "It's very special to me and vets are very special to me, so I wanted to tie those two together. It was very important for me to give other vets a chance to try it out."
Callihan took his idea to Reggie Sellers, owner of High Mark Recreation in Boise, who immediately agreed to help.
"I've got a soft spot for vets," Sellers said. "They put their lives on the line to keep us free."
Sellers volunteered use of his snowmobiles, and also put Callihan in touch with Sandra Mitchell, public lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.
Callihan presented his idea to the association's board at its annual convention in November.
"I asked for a blank check of their support, and it just poured in," Callihan said.
"There wasn't even a discussion. It was just a matter of whatever we had to do to make it happen," Mitchell said.
GOT YOUR BACK
The association took care of most of the logistics, including rounding up snowmobiles, including loaners from Sellers and Moto-Tech in Boise. Western Power Sports in Boise provided helmets and goggles.
The event was held at the Francis Wallace snowmobile parking lot north of McCall on March 7, and McCall and Donnelly snowmobilers provided further support, along with Idaho Parks and Recreation staff.
Callihan gathered the veterans through the Boise VA Medical Center, and experienced riders teamed up with the veterans to show them everything from the basics to the finer points of snowmobiling.
Even the weather cooperated. They were greeted with fresh snow, sunny skies and mild temperatures.
Riders hit the groomed trails and some branched out to discover powder stashes in the nearby mountains.
"It's better than I expected," said Matthew Cornett of Emmett. "Going off the trail I was a little nervous because it felt like I would tip, but then I opened the throttle and it went."
Cornett could be the next to follow in Callihan's tracks.
"I want to trade in my four-wheeler. I need to find a way to get a snowmobile," he said.
A HEALING GATHERING
Callihan said the trip was about more than enjoying a day in the snow; it was about connecting veterans who face similar challenges after their military careers end.
Many of the things they saw and experienced can only be fully understood by their peers.
Cornett suffered a severe neck injury in Iraq when the truck he was riding in rammed a reinforced gate. He served with the Idaho National Guard during its deployment to Iraq in 2004.
Trevor Hill of Boise was a Marine in Fallujah, Iraq, where some of the fiercest fighting occurred. He lost 33 fellow Marines from his unit in seven months - 22 died in just one week of fighting.
DeWayne Mayer of New Plymouth was serving in the Idaho National Guard north of Kirkuk, Iraq when a roadside bomb turned his armored Humvee into "Swiss cheese" and killed one of his fellow Guardsmen.
Callihan said after war wounds heal, veterans still face many challenges, and they often lose some of the bonds they had with their fellow soldiers and Marines. He said the snowmobile trip was a chance to feel that cohesion again.
"It's equally important for vets to get to know each other," Callihan said. "It's therapeutic."
That's one of the reasons Kacie Fostermerk of Boise joined the snowmobile trip.
She sustained massive injuries during a training exercise and was medically retired after serving 15 years in the Idaho and Michigan National Guards.
"The camaraderie is a really big thing," she said. "It's family, and even if you didn't serve together, there's still a mutual connection."
Initially planned for disabled vets, Callihan broadened the scope of the snowmobile trip to include Shannah Parr of Nampa and her 10-year-old son, Nicholas.
Parr's husband and Nicholas' father, Sgt. Brandon Allen Parr, was on his second deployment to Iraq when he was killed on March 3, 2007 after a roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle.
The timing of the snowmobile trip was in the same week as the anniversary of Brandon's death.
"It's been really hard for Nicholas, so this trip was perfect timing for him to come out and participate and have fun," Parr said. "We're really grateful and thankful to be included."
"I was really excited," Nicholas said. "It's fun to be able to meet some of the people in the same situation. It's really special to me."
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