Republished from ThinkVermont.com
Five months into his second deployment to Kunar Provence, Afghanistan (Aug. 2011), Med. Ret. SSG Misha C. Pemble-Belkin’s unit was in a direct engagement with Taliban fighters. During this fight he was in close contact with a blast that caused a cervical spine injury and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He had the opportunity to be sent home but decided to stay in country with his fellow soldiers to do his part to bring them back home. Once he returned home, he attempted to recover and heal to be able to deploy again in the following year. His injuries were worse than he had thought and were irreversible. During the recovery process, he had to accept that he could no longer be a soldier. He fell into a rut and had lost the sense of purpose and pride that he once had.
In February 2015 he medically retired from the US Army and was sent on his way, without really knowing what the future held. He struggled to find his new path and purpose in life. Through a few connections, he learned of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport’s veterans program. Moving to Vermont for its winter sports and growing up with a passion for snowboarding, he took advantage of the program and hit the slopes with the Veterans groups about a dozen times. The following summer, he hiked, kayaked and went bowling with Vermont Adaptive, growing a genuine bond with the staff, volunteers and fellow vets in the program.
That initial introduction to Vermont Adaptive turned Pemble-Belkin first into a volunteer instructor, then an intern, and now the organization’s Veteran Ventures Program Coordinator.
Vermont Adaptive is proud to offer programs specifically designed for injured service members, veterans with disabilities, and their families. Since the organization’s inception in 1987, Vermont Adaptive has worked with veterans with disabilities and evolved its programs to match the changes in the needs and interests of men and women who have been injured in the line of duty.
Many years ago, Vermont Adaptive was a major destination for groups of physically disabled veterans from the Vietnam era. It then saw an increase in disabled veterans participating in sport after the Persian Gulf crisis. Today is a new era, where veterans with disabilities include those with both physical and invisible disabilities like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and brain injuries.
Through the years, Vermont Adaptive has participated in national initiatives like the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project and events, plus continually works with partners like Moved United USA, the US Paralympics, and the United States Association of Blind Athletes. The organization’s efforts are on a local, regional and national level.
Since Pemble-Belkin took the helm of Veterans programs in 2017, Vermont Adaptive has served nearly 350 individual Veterans through more than 4,462 individual activities and almost 20 multi-day retreats.
“One of my very first lessons was with this boy who had minimal verbal communications, and used mostly hand signals to communicate” said Pemble-Belkin. “His mother informed me that he really wanted to go up one of the chair lifts, since he had never been up one before. We started on Mighty Mite (at Bolton Valley Ski Area), the tow rope to assess his abilities, and within a few runs it was clear he had the balance and ability to go up the lift and be tethered down the slopes. That first run I took with this young, brave boy softened the hard shell that I had put up around my heart. The smile that he had on his face as he glided down the mountain was unforgettable and something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Veteran Ray Hamilton is another person in the program who was looking for a change. A veteran from Upstate New York, Ray had moved to Vermont looking to get away from a hectic home life. When he first got here, he said that he had trouble meeting people, and he fell in with a crowd that didn’t enable him to make the healthiest choices. He eventually learned of Vermont Adaptive’s Veteran Ventures Program as well. This group of veterans is a tight-knit bunch, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming group of people. On Thursdays in the winter, the group comes together at Bolton Valley, which includes a potluck lunch, skiing, snowboarding, and a lot of camaraderie.
In the summer, Hamilton spent his Thursdays biking and hiking as a way to get out of the house. He said that joining up with Vermont Adaptive’s Veteran Ventures program helped him to stop being reclusive, and get him outdoors with good friends.
Veteran Ventures is a year-round program offering skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing, rock climbing, hiking, biking, bowling, therapeutic horse-back riding, downhill and trail mountain biking, paddling and whitewater rafting, specific Veteran’s retreats and more. All veterans participate with Vermont Adaptive for free; there is no charge.
To learn more, visit the Veterans program section of vermontadaptive.org or contact Ret. SSG Misha Pemble-Belkin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802.770.0445.