Veterans gather for adaptive sports at Pineland Farms
Hammonds, a Marine who was wounded during combat duty in Iraq, was one of 13 veterans and two staff members participating at the Team Semper Fi Nordic/Biathlon camp put on by New Gloucester’s Pineland Farms’ Veterans Adaptive Sports and Training program on Saturday.
VAST offers adaptive sports opportunities for disabled veterans. It hosted the second of three days devoted to providing outdoor recreational experiences for returning veterans with combat-related injuries.
The participants appreciated the cross-country skiing and other events, such as the biathlon. But maybe more important for veterans like Hammonds was the chance to reconnect with members of a special fraternity: the brothers and sisters with whom he served in Iraq.
“For many of us, coming here, we get to see guys from our former units,” Hammonds said. “There’s an instant click and a bond you have here that you don’t have with others. There’s a service-related bond, but when you have an injury — like with Team Semper Fi — it’s all combat-related injuries; there’s a different bond, a deeper, emotional bond.”
VAST was launched in 2012 by two-time Olympic biathlete and veteran Kristina Sabasteanski. The emphasis of VAST is to connect veterans who’ve suffered combat injuries while they participate in various outdoor recreational activities.
Sabasteanski, VAST's director, participated at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and in Salt Lake City in 2002, when she was one of eight athletes who carried the World Trade Center American flag into Rice-Eccles Stadium during opening ceremonies of the XIX Winter Olympic Games.
“There are not a lot of programs for veterans with (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Sabasteanski said. “My program is for veterans with physical disabilities, (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD and also for veterans who want to volunteer for the program."
Richard Rubino of Aurora, Miss., was participating in events with his wife, Nancy. A combat veteran with two tours in Iraq, Rubino suffered a traumatic brain injury in combat.
His wife said this weekend's events and others sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund help her husband and others suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
“Richard has brain trauma, and he has trouble connecting the dots,” she said. “He’s still the same person. Coming here gets him out of his shell, out of his comfort zone. If he falls, everyone else is also,” she said, laughing. “It’s really good for him.”
Sabasteanski said VAST also offers a local, year-round recreation program, which takes place from 9 a.m. to noon every Wednesday. It has grown from 12 to 34 participants.
“For veterans suffering from ‘invisible wounds,' it isn’t always easy," Sabasteanski said. “Without an active-duty base in Maine, or unless they’re getting treatment with the VA, it’s hard to connect. VAST helps promote camaraderie, activity — getting those endorphins going. We have people coming who haven’t been out of the house in three years. It’s a simple concept, but it’s catching on.”
This is the second year VAST has hosted the event. Travel expenses were covered by the Semper Fi Fund. VAST handled the logistics and coordinated volunteers from other organizations, including Northeast Passage, New England Nordic Ski Association and students from the University of Southern Maine's therapeutic recreation program.