Climbing the ropes to ability

Times Staff Writer

Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva survived stepping on a landmine the first day of the ground war in Iraq, but he spent months in the hospital -- wishing he had died.

Flying shrapnel had shredded his right leg, forcing doctors to amputate it above the knee. His right arm and hand were mangled, and his left leg was broken.

Alva wondered whether he would ever be able to walk again.

"In the beginning, the hard part is not accepting your injury," he said. "You hate life. You hate what happened. You're angry, but you're mostly sad. I can remember day after day and countless weeks of nothing but crying."

At first, Alva was alone in the wards at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and then at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But as the war went on, dozens of soldiers were brought in -- almost all of them with similar injuries. Alva decided it was time to pull himself out of bed, learn to stand and then walk, with the help of a prosthetic leg.

By winter, the former marathon runner was in Colorado skiing, with the help of a team of Paralympic instructors. Last week in Long Beach, Alva and 25 other Iraq war veterans learned to rock climb, cycle and sail at the annual SummerFest hosted by Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit group that helps vets and civilians overcome even the toughest disabilities.

"I realize now that anything is possible," said Alva, 33, who is going back to college in his hometown of San Antonio this fall to study sports medicine. "I never believed it at first, but the saying is true: Time really does heal all wounds."

New recruits

Until the war started in Iraq nearly 16 months ago, Disabled Sports served mostly Vietnam veterans and disabled civilians. That's not the case anymore. Volunteers from the group visit military hospitals weekly, offering sports courses to dozens of permanently disabled soldiers. More than 50 vets injured in Iraq have joined.

"We want to help these guys who are coming back from Iraq with some pretty serious injuries," said Disabled Sports Executive Director Kirk M. Bauer, who joined the group 35 years ago after he lost a leg in Vietnam. "Their bodies are protected by their equipment but not their limbs, and that's what's being blown off by these roadside bombs and other devices.

"We want to show them that they can still lead a full life, and sports is an important tool."

The second annual SummerFest in Long Beach provided a mini-vacation for about 100 civilians and soldiers, their families and friends. For four days, the soldiers had their pick of classes, taught by volunteer instructors. Running, wheeling and scuba seminars were held at Millikan High School. On Mother's Beach, a quiet waterway about half a mile from the shore, people gathered in groups of 20 to learn how to water ski, canoe, cycle and rock climb. In the evenings, they met for dinner and took harbor cruises.

Joe Garrett, a San Diego man who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in 1988, said he was surprised to see so many war vets. "It just blows me away that so many of these guys are coming back from Iraq, injured for life," said Garrett, who has been going to events hosted by Disabled Sports events for more than a decade. "It's sad, but I think it's excellent that they're here."

The participants included several recently injured soldiers, such as Army 1st Lt. Lonnie Moore, from Wichita, Kan., who lost a leg when his Bradley fighting vehicle came under heavy fire near Fallouja on April 6. He and his fiancee, Melanie Disbrow, arrived in Long Beach on June 27 after leaving Walter Reed's outpatient housing facility at dawn.

The following Monday, Moore and Disbrow teamed to learn how to canoe and sail. On Tuesday, they water-skied.

"Look, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I'm a big man and this injury wasn't a big deal," said Moore, who walks with a prosthesis. "There are a couple times I've really broken down. It gets challenging. But the great thing about being out here is everyone pushes and supports everyone else. It's nice to have a group of people who are going through the same thing you are."

Alva was determined to conquer the rock-climbing wall set up on a road along Mother's Beach. It was not an easy task. He had a hard time angling his prosthetic leg while pulling himself up with his injured hand. He would climb about 6 feet before he would lose his footing.

After several attempts, Alva had drawn a crowd of a dozen supporters, who chanted, "Go Marine!" At 20 feet up, Alva declared victory, grinning at his cheering fans. Strapped to safety ropes, he then eased himself down.

Next it was Army Sgt. Johnnie Williams' turn. The 21-year-old veteran from Tampa, Fla., was left paralyzed from the waist down when the Humvee he was riding in was run off a narrow road 100 miles northwest of Baghdad 13 months ago. He was thrown from the vehicle, which ran over him as it careened down an embankment.

Volunteer instructors lifted Williams into a harness. He used his arms to pull himself up a rope to the top of the wall. It didn't take him long. Williams' mother, Vicky Harris, taunted him. "Let's see you do it again," she yelled. He smiled at her and climbed to the top twice more, where he posed for pictures.

"I just wanted to get out here and have some fun," said Williams, who uses a wheelchair to get around. "I've gotten to the point where I've accepted what happened. You have a choice -- either you can keep on living or just fall down and die. So I just do my best every day."

Harris said it was nice to see her son happy. She found out a year ago, on Mother's Day, that he had been seriously injured in Iraq. At first, doctors didn't think he would live.

"He's a trooper," Harris said. "Some days we had a hard time adjusting and dealing, but I thank God we all made it through. He's doing OK. I'm doing OK.... It's a good for him to do things like this. It inspires you as a person who is looking on and a person who is participating."

Nationwide organization

Disabled Sports USA was established in 1967 in Northern California by several disabled Vietnam war veterans. Now based in Rockville, Md., it has a nationwide network of more than 80 chapters in 35 states. The group offers sports and rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability, including stroke, multiple sclerosis and visual impairments.

Bauer, the executive director, credits Disabled Sports for helping him deal with his own injury after he returned from Vietnam in 1969.

"I lost my leg from a hand grenade during a firefight," he said. "It took six months in the hospital and seven operations until they put me back together again. I contemplated suicide at one point. I was depressed and wondering what was going on in my life. These guys literally dragged me out of the hospital and taught me how to ski in one day. It turned my life around."

Bauer estimates that the group serves more than 60,000 people annually. The veterans attending last week's SummerFest traveled and participated for free, the tab picked up by United Airlines, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Challenged Athletes Foundation, among other sponsors.

"We are able to teach these soldiers a sports skill up through the beginner level in one day, whether it's cycling, outrigger canoeing or sailing," Bauer said. "They will return home with real confidence in their ability to get back and active again."

Arriving in Long Beach from Colorado Springs, Colo., Army Capt. David Rozelle, who lost part of his right leg a year ago in a landmine explosion, said he was eager to learn how to water ski and scuba dive. Along with Alva, he had participated in the Disabled Sports ski clinic in Breckenridge, Colo., in December.

"When you become disabled, you become adaptive," said Rozelle, who first skied at age 3. "In the case of snow skiing, I needed some wedges in my boots.... By the end of the week, I was again snowboarding and competing in a Level 2 race. It was the real deal."

Rozelle, who was in charge of 140 soldiers as part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said he hopes to return to Iraq next year to command a new unit. He was serving as the unofficial "sheriff" of Hit, a city in western Iraq, when he drove over an anti-tank mine in June 2003. The explosion sliced through the middle of his Humvee. Doctors amputated his leg below the knee in a hospital tent.

"Any time you are in combat, you feel powerful," said Rozelle, who attended the event in Long Beach with his wife and 11-month-old son. "You feel no one is going to kill you because you are smarter, you are better trained and you are better equipped. You don't even think about it. Then when you get blown up, you realize how vulnerable you are. What matters the most to me is that I'm still alive."

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