Friday, August 22, 2008

Veterans praise local sports program for wounded

Wood River Ability Program seeks more funds

Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Ability Program, whose alumni include wounded veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, received a boost Tuesday from the real soldier portrayed as the main character in the movie "Blackhawk Down."

"Please give generously to this program," Sgt. Matt Eversmann told about 50 people assembled at the home of Steve and Nancy Bareilles in East Fork.

The event was a fund-raiser for the three-year-old program, which has hosted about 200 veterans in its sports activities. Those include alpine and cross-country skiing, whitewater rafting, bicycling and surfing. Sun Valley Adaptive Sports has also brought wounded veterans to the area for similar activities.

More than 30,000 soldiers have been wounded in action in Iraq.

"These guys have put their lives on the line for us, and now it's our job to take care of them," Wood River Ability Program Executive Director Marc Mast said.

In an interview, Mast said he would like to double the program's $100,000 budget. He said pledges made during Tuesday's event were a good start toward meeting that goal.

Mast said both Eversmann and Maj. Edward Pulido, a former participant in the program who had lost a leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq, told him they'd like to help in the effort.

"It's a wonderful feeling to know that my life started here," Pulido told the group. "Before I got on this (ski) hill, I didn't know I could do all this. I want to tell the American people 'thank you for your investment in my life.' My life changed because I knew that my country loved me and cared for me."

Pulido was wounded while driving an SUV on a highway near Baqubah. After spending 17 hours in surgery, he was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he was connected with Operation Comfort. The organization included Pulido in a ski trip to Sun Valley in February 2005.

Eversmann, who served in both Somalia and Iraq, is developing a leadership training program for school students. He said he was motivated in his current efforts by a comment from a teacher that kids these days don't have heroes.

"I spent the last 20 years of my life surrounded by heroes," he said.

As examples, he pointed to two soldiers who asked to be dropped in to the crash site of a Blackhawk helicopter in Mogadishu to rescue the survivors despite the overwhelming number of armed Somalis surrounding the area. Heroism, he said, consists of selfless service, courage and a sense of commitment.

"Our program's about treating these guys with respect and dignity, whether you agree with the war in Iraq or not," Mast said in an interview.

He said he needs more funding to buy more cross-country skiing equipment, offer more scholarships and do more surfing camps in California. He said he would also like to publicize the Wood River Ability Program more to disabled people in Twin Falls.

"It's amazing how many people down there don't know they can do these things, and they can't afford to buy this stuff," he said.

The Wood River Ability Program can be reached at 726-9013.

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