After a plane crash landed Chris in a wheelchair, his therapist at Palo Alto VA Medical Center encouraged him to go to the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado. That experience put Chris on a new path in life.

At the time we interviewed him, he had spent over two decades on the US Paralympic team and had won two gold and two silver medals. He was back at the clinic where he got his start, helping other disabled Veterans find joy in adaptive sports.

Where and when did you serve?

I served in the Coast Guard from ’79 to ’83. And would still be, had we not gone down in a plane crash that put me in a wheelchair.

We were returning to a runway in bad weather on Attu Island, the last island of the Aleutian chain before it turns into Russia, and we hit a mountain.

What happened after the injury?

I went to the Palo Alto VA spinal cord unit. And those people were fantastic. They even still talk to me today because I was not a happy camper, let me tell you.

Coast Guard Veteran Chris

Those first couple years for me learning how to be in a wheelchair… figuring out what the indignities of being in a wheelchair are were such a shock to my system. And to be so sedentary and so limited in what I could do just, for me, it was absolutely devastating.

What motivated a change for you?

It was the First Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and the recreational therapist there asked me if I wanted to go skiing. And for a week, he had to keep pestering me to get me to say yes.

But when I did, it was two turns – one right turn and one left turn – and I had my life back. It gave me the drive to want to be healthy again. And it gave me the drive to want to talk to people again and want to help people again.

What it is like now, going to VA for health care?

For me, as a disabled Veteran, I go to White River Junction VA in Vermont, and I know the people there. I’ve been going for years. But even the very first day I went there and I didn’t know them, I was going to my community. And for me, in the beginning, a lot of it was having the courage to ask. To say I have a problem and I need a new cushion. I have a flat and I need somebody to teach me how to run this wheelchair. I need somebody to talk to so that I can vent and I don’t vent at the poor person that’s trying to open a door for me.

Just having that courage and knowing that I can go to the VA hospital and I can talk to my doctor, I can talk to a therapist, or I can talk to the PT department or somebody and they can problem solve with me.

Not for me, but with me to create a plan to deal with what’s happening so that I can still maintain the kind of life I want to lead, not the kind of life that’s been dealt me.

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By Bronwyn Emmet is a public affairs specialist for VA's National Veterans Outreach Office

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Published on Sep. 24, 2021

Estimated reading time is 2.9 min.

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  1. Janelle Whye September 24, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    Awesome that they were there for you in every capacity. Always great to hear good things about them. Sadly my time with them has been a horror story.

  2. Randel Daniel September 24, 2021 at 4:51 pm

    Good for you. Palo Alto is a pretty good VA. Count your blessings your hospital is not in the state of Georgia.

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