Sports Therapy

11.05.135:45 AM ET

How Active Sports Are Helping Vets Heal and Readjust to Civilian Life

An Iraq veteran and double amputee is back hitting the slopes. Active sports are a new approach to helping disabled veterans recover from their injuries.

When you see Kevin Pannell hitting the slopes at Mount Hood Meadows, just outside of Portland, Oregon, you’d have no idea the seasoned snowboarder, who was awarded a Purple Heart in Iraq, is a double amputee. 

On June 13, 2004, Halfway through his second tour of duty in what he says had been a “pretty uneventful Army career,” the sergeant from Arkansas was working security on a routine mission in Baghdad when it all changed. 

Pannell knew immediately that something was wrong when his unit turned down an alleyway and he heard the distinct and familiar sound of grenades. “I heard 3 pops and knew the sound well,” he says. After seeing one fly over his shoulder, Pannell turned to warn the rest of his patrol, but milliseconds later, two grenades rolled under his feet and exploded.

The Veteran’s Administration, along with city and regional nonprofits across the country are using adaptive sports to help veterans heal. Pannell, a triathlete who participates in a number of adaptive sports, is one of a growing number of wounded veterans who are returning home and using sports as a tool to recover from their injuries and reintegrate after being deployed overseas.

Patty Prather, a recreation therapist who works in Adaptive Recreation at the City of Eugene got involved with disabled veterans after helping lead a snowshoeing trip to Crater Lake two years ago. “It was pretty life changing,” she says, “to be able to work with a group of folks who really don’t have the opportunities to get outdoors and know how to do things in an adaptive way or recreate with their families the way they used to.”

She says that while the veterans she works with in Southern Oregon come from different branches of military service, they all share a common bond from their experiences and often feel safer around each other rather than the general public. 

“We encourage each other and have a camaraderie. These guys have experienced the same thing I have,” says Ree McSween, a Desert Storm US Coastguard veteran, explaining the importance of adaptive sports with other vets. “If I’m experiencing a PTSD moment, they understand it—they get it,” she says.  

With veteran suicide rates at an all time high (recent numbers from a 2012 VA report indicates just under 25 veterans a day take their own life), non-conventional forms of therapy like sports are one approach to assist veterans in dealing with their emotional issues and readjusting to civilian life. From helping with depression to improving social skills and self-image, the endorphins they get from becoming active again, vets say, is life-changing.

Gathering veterans from across the country for the National Disabled Veterans Clinics, the VA works to promote adaptive sports like sailing, track and field, skiing and snowboarding for veterans of all skill levels and varying disabilities.  

Prather, who coached seven Oregon veterans at the Summer Sports clinic in San Diego two months ago in September says that the goal for the clinics is to get veterans to go back to their communities and be an advocate for themselves and inspire other veterans to get involved, regardless of what adaptive equipment they need.

After over a decade of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for prosthetic devices has increased, which in turn is putting pressure on researchers and manufacturers for more high tech devices. The VA says they care for 38,000 veterans with major limb loss and just this year, the Department of Defense invested $8 million in grant money for research on cutting edge bionic legs, which helps link brain waves to prosthetic devices.

With a VA budget of $1.8 billion for prosthetics (which includes limbs and sensory aid devices), and $17 million in prosthetic research, James Manser, Chief of Prosthetics at the VA in Roseburg, Oregon, says that $6 million was spent in Roseburg alone for 26,000 veterans in Southern Oregon for this category.

“We are very fortunate that the American people have communicated to congress that veterans get the funding they need,” he said.

Pannell, who says he had a “Sink or swim moment” in the first few weeks during his two years of rehabilitation at Walter Reed was able to let the anger he had about losing his legs go while he was relearning how to walk and run. The simple focus on the most basic physical activities helped him go from walking again to gliding down mountains on his snowboard; it helped him get his life back.

He says instead of taking the worst moment in his life and making it the focal point, he did the opposite. “I had a conversation with my guys and told them I’d be the first one off the plane standing up to greet them when they got home. And I actually did.” In the brisk fall air, Pannell takes deep breath and finishes speaking. “At Fort Sill—I walked up and was the first person standing to meet them. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”