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Dan Cnossen’s visit to military rehabilitation centers

Western Rehabilitation and Sports Center of the National Sports Committee for the Disabled of Ukraine

In late April, 2024, as part of the Mountain Seed Foundation’s mission to visit military rehabilitation centers inside Ukraine and scout potential areas for future mountain retreats and climbing centers, I journeyed a couple hours’ drive south of Lviv to the Paralympic training center in the Carpathian mountain region.

This was my first time in Ukraine and I did not know what to expect in terms of the war and security situation. Venturing to the Western Rehabilitation and Sports Center of the National Sports Committee for the Disabled of Ukraine, I quickly realized that the signs of war were nonexistent in this peaceful, beautiful mountain region.

For years, as a member of the US Paralympic Nordic ski team, I had been wanting to ski race in Ukraine but never had the chance, although I routinely compete in other countries against Ukrainians, admittedly on the losing side usually; this facility I visited is the site where the Ukrainian cross-country skiing and biathlon national team lives and trains, where international competitions are held, and where athletes from other Olympic and Paralympic national sports train. And now, because of the war of Russian aggression, the Paralympic training center doubles as a center for the rehabilitation of injured Ukrainian soldiers.

Immediately I thought: this center is like combining the US Olympic and Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs with Walter Reed national military hospital in Washington, DC, where I recovered after sustaining an injury in Afghanistan in 2009. However, while at Walter Reed—an incredible facility in itself—I did not have the chance to train alongside Paralympic or Olympic athletes. More specifically, to recuperate and train alongside Paralympic athletes who have advanced beyond whatever perceived limitations their impairments would imply to now excel in sport, would have been extremely motivating for me in the initial days after my injury—I know this.

To see the Ukrainian soldiers working hard, training in a center devoted to not just physical performance but also the healing of both the body and the mind, restoring functionality, gaining independence despite limitations, while simultaneously developing community, is to see at a larger level symbolically the resolve and determination of Ukraine to preserve its sovereignty.

Vasyl Kravchuk, a Ukrainian Paralympic cross-country skier and biathlete who I have competed against in past winter seasons, was at the center to greet me. I also met a soldier, Anatoliy, paralyzed at the front in combat eight months prior. When I first met Anatoliy, we were touring various rehab rooms and he was at the time training on a ski erg, a specific piece of cross-country ski equipment which I use at home. He mentioned that he wants to qualify to make his country’s Paralympic ski team. He found out a bit about me and had some questions.

My personal motivation after sustaining a combat injury that was significant enough to rule out the possibility of ever being operational again for the military, was to get into athletic competition in a difficult sport, where there is hard work and struggle, a team atmosphere, goal setting, and where skills and training are put to the test in overseas competition. I think it is very important for injured service members to be physical again, to feel like an athlete regardless of what limitations may now exist, to take what you still have and apply it in training, to push the mind and the body against their limits. The benefits to psychology, health, and daily living can be great.

I could sense that Anatoliy feels much the same as I do. He has a spinal cord injury; life on the outside in a wheelchair in Ukraine cannot be easy, although the training center is completely wheelchair accessible. Later that night, over games of pool in which Anatoliy proved extremely proficient, we asked each other, through a translator, more questions about our military experiences and sports. For me it was nostalgic to think back upon the time of my physical therapy at Walter Reed, to remember how excited I was to move to Colorado to begin training for the Paralympic ski team. For Anatoliy, I think he realized that with training and consistency of effort over time, he will make the Ukrainian ski team, that there can be a meaningful and fulfilling future though it will require hard work and resolve.

In less than two months, the Mountain Seed Foundation will run its first climb-to-heal camps in Austria with injured Ukrainian soldiers. In the past we have assisted refugees and family members of the fallen, all of whom need support as well. The Austrian Alps are awe-inspiring to behold and climbing there will stretch the perceived limitations of the injured soldiers, creating some vulnerability where healing can then begin to occur, but it will also forge bonds with their fellow soldiers and their accompanying family members and this they can take home to Ukraine. In the future, we will offer these kinds of opportunities inside Ukraine, which is important to do, once the infrastructure needed for adaptive climbing is developed. We can then take Ukrainian soldiers who have graduated before from our climbing program and invite them back as mentors to the new soldiers coming through the training, and this leadership role can really assist in their recovery as well.

As I experienced with Anatoliy, there often is a spoken or unspoken bond between soldiers who have been critically injured, and this transcends language or culture or rank. By bringing soldiers together, pushing them outside their comfort zone in a challenging environment, we can assemble the ingredients from which true healing can occur. I hope to climb with Anatoliy someday, and I also hope to race against him on snow.

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For personal checks, please make payable to Mountain Seed Foundation and mail them to: 14737 Pickets Post Rd, Centreville, VA 20121. Please add EIN: 87-1017090 in the reference section.

Donate Today

For personal checks, please make payable to Mountain Seed Foundation and mail them to: 14737 Pickets Post Rd, Centreville, VA 20121. Please add EIN: 87-1017090 in the reference section.

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