‘I can do this’: STARS hosts Stars and Stripes veterans camps despite the pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Jeanie Murphy learned to ski in Austria when she was stationed in Mannheim, Germany, with the U.S. Army more than 20 years ago.
“I’m originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, where if the snow is in the air, the schools are closed by the time it hits the ground,” Murphy said. “So, needless to say, I never snow skied growing up, and I never traveled out to anywhere that was cold.”
On Monday, Murphy, who now lives in Manhattan, Kansas, with her husband and children, was about to give the sport another try thanks to a Stars and Stripes Camp for veterans offered by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports — STARS. The 59-year-old Murphy admitted she was nervous about her first time back on snow in two decades but also excited.
“I’m a little nervous, but I don’t think I’m scared. I’ve been through a lot in my life,” Murphy said. “I think it’s important for my fellow comrades and other blinded veterans — people that don’t think they can do things or think they have limitations — to know that I can do this. I can still do a lot of things. I just do those things differently than you do.”
Murphy discovered she was losing her vision when she went to get a new driver’s license and failed the test back in the mid-1990s.
“I failed the eye exam, and they told me that I couldn’t see,” she recalls. “I thought it was a joke.”
She later found out that her vision loss was linked to ocular histoplasmosis syndrome, a condition caused by a soil fungus. She isn’t sure when she came into contact with it, but she thinks it might have happened while guarding barges in Germany as part of the 42nd Military Police Group providing customs enforcement during the Gulf War era. It took some time to figure out what she was facing, but by 1996, her vision was reduced, and by 1997, she found out she was going blind and she retired from the Army in 1998.
Today, Murphy uses a white support cane to get around, and she can’t drive. Though her visual impairment has come with many challenges, Murphy said she is doing what she can to get the most out of life.
She has pursued programs she has learned about through the Blind Veterans Association, including a camp in Crested Butte in summer 2019 where she learned to kayak and rock climb and now the STARS camp for veterans in Steamboat Springs where she plans to learn to ski and encourage some of her fellow veterans to share her love of the twists and turns on the Outlaw Mountain Coaster.
“My children look at me and say, ‘Wow mom, what do you think you’re doing? I went and hiked the Appalachian Trail in northern Georgia and rappelled off of a 60-foot ranger wall,” Murphy said. “I would never have done that if I could see — I mean, that’s just too scary.”
This week Murphy challenged herself on the beginner’s hill at Steamboat Resort, learning how to stop, turn and get around on skis despite the fact that her vision is impaired. On Monday, her instructor Justin Griffith eased her into the basics, and a few days later, she was making her way up Christie Peak Express to take on some more challenging green runs.
“I am active, I love life and I’m excited to try skiing again,” Murphy said. “It’s going be fun for me, but I’m probably not going to master it.”
Rekindling an old love
When Brian O’Connell arrived in Steamboat last March for a STARS ski camp for veterans, it was the first time he had been on skis in more than 20 years.
“I thought, not knowing anything differently until then, there was no way I can do that,” said O’Connell, who retired from the U.S. Air Force after serving for 26 years.
He said a lot has changed for him during the past two decades. He retired from the U.S. Air Force, served as a high school teacher and also lost most of his vision from a combination of different causes.
“I have glaucoma, which was diagnosed 20-plus years ago, that was incrementally doing its thing, and I had several head traumas over the years,” O’Connell said. “So I have significant loss of central vision and a lot of peripheral vision.”
O’Connell said the loss of his vision progressed slowly at first. He was able to continue working for several more years after the diagnoses before leaving the Air Force for the first time and was called back after 9/11 despite his glaucoma. However, his vision loss accelerated in 2014 and 2015.
“I was teaching high school at the time in North Carolina,” O’Connell said. “First in my right and then my left … all of the sudden my vision quickly started decreasing. I couldn’t teach anymore, and within a couple years, things started really changing quickly.”
The loss of vision stole things O’Connell enjoyed the most. He couldn’t teach anymore, he couldn’t sail and he never dreamed he would ski again. He couldn’t drive anymore and was suddenly dependent on his wife of 45 years, Sue, to get around.
“I had skied for years and years,” O’Connell said. “I started in college way back in 1970s, and when I was in the Air Force I was stationed in places way up north, so I did a lot of skiing off and on for years.”
Then in 2019, O’Connell learned about the Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Center, which offers programs for blind and visually impaired veterans. O’Connell said there are 13 of these centers around the country that introduce helpful technology to veterans dealing with visual impairment.
“They have great training and great technology updates,” O’Connell said. “The iPad is an amazing piece of machinery with all sorts of accessibility options.”
While at the center, O’Connell met a woman who knew Lonnie Bedwell, a former Navy petty officer who was critically injured in a hunting accident that took his sight. Since then, Bedwell has become a motivational speaker and adventurer with a mission to motivate and inspire others to embrace life with confidence and courage.
That woman reached out to Bedwell, who then reached out to O’Connell and asked if he would be interested in attending one of the veterans camps that STARS offers in Steamboat. He attended the camp last March, and he said it rekindled his love of skiing and his desire to do more despite his disability. He said he owes it all to those first turns last March on Mount Werner.
“I got a little choked up,” O’Connell said of his first time back on snow. “That feeling again — that ability to do something I’d loved and thought I would ever do again. That is definitely awesome.”
O’Connell plans to return to ski again with STARS in March.
STARS programming in the time of COVID
Veterans sat at large, round tables in the great room at the STARS Ranch on Wednesday swapping stories of the day’s adventures in front of the warm glow of the fireplace.
This is the scene the leadership and supporters of STARS were hoping for when they came up with the idea to build the ranch, which opened just before COVID-19 arrived and changed everything.
“I started right after programming closed down,” STARS Executive Director Gardner Flanigan said. “It really affected us, because we had a number of camps on the books and lessons booked, which all had to be canceled and refunds given. That all happened from the end of March through April.”
The nonprofit organization offers private ski lessons, camps, locals programming, veterans camps and adaptive and visually impaired guide programs in the winter and adaptive horseback riding, day activities and veterans and Western adventure camps in the summer — all of which were impacted by the pandemic.
STARS programming didn’t return until June when local summer camps returned in a limited capacity. Winter programming started in December with private lessons, and to date, STARS Ranch has hosted nine camps with 33 participants and three caregivers. .
“Year to date we are down about 60% in participants,” Flanigan said. “We have 27 beds and nine rooms, but we can have only one household per room so that limits the number of overnight groups that come and stay at the ranch.”
This week, the ranch hosted a group of veterans with visual impairment. The facility provided lodging, transportation and a place where participants could push their limits.
Flanigan said COVID-19 protocols changed many things, including social distancing in the great room and transportation to Steamboat Resort. Instructors wear masks and obey social distancing rules, and everyone goes through daily health checks.
“We have an extensive mitigation plan in place for our staff, volunteers and participants,” Flanigan said. “We have had very few cases and very little quarantining. Our steps have worked.”
To find out more about STARS and all of its programming, visit steamboatstars.com.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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