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Wounded veterans have a home with NAC

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record Staff

An explosion rocked Sergeant Johan Christina Bagge as he was driving his team just south of Kirkuk, Iraq in June, 2005. The incident left Bagge without his legs.

He lost one leg above and the other below his knee. It’s something Bagge is still adjusting to.

"I’m not sure that you really ever get over it," said Bagge, who now lives in San Antonio.

Bagge participated with the Wounded Warrior Project and the National Ability Center (NAC) last May during a river-rafting trip they took down the Grand Canyon.

"It’s one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my life," Bagge said.

A mixed group of disabled veterans and civilians joined together in a program that strives to help those in need discover hope.

"A lot of them had to be pushed," Bagge said. "It was tough getting on and off the raft, walking in the sand and the rocks. It was good for a lot of the people to experience. It definitely pushed them to a new level.

"It was definitely challenging and an awesome experience. If you can navigate that terrain you can definitely navigate anywhere else," Bagge said.

The diversity of personalities on the trip added to the learning experience.

"The feedback we received about having the mix was a really healthy environment," said Meeche White, the executive director of the NAC. "It’s really great to get a person who’s disabled to be with a newly disabled person. They learn they’re just like everyone else. They see somebody who doesn’t see them different from who they are. It’s kind of one of those unsaid healing pieces."

Bagge agrees.

"You learn a lot about people," he said. "Pretty much all the war veterans were healthy and physically fit before they were hurt. A lot of these other people have been disabled since birth. They learned about us and us them. It was fun and you meet a lot of different people."

Opportunities such as this are critical in building a disabled person’s morale.

"People who have a traumatic injury such as losing a limb, their life is tragic and very different," White said.

"They say you can live your life fully," White continued, "but until you can get them out there and they can have that experience, all of a sudden they are doing hikes and doing things that they didn’t see as a possibility. All the sudden the doors of opportunity open. They still think that life is difficult, but they think, ‘I can still lead a normal life.’"

Bagge believes programs like the Grand Canyon trip can enable people with disabilities to gain added confidence.

"It would help somebody if they came to the Grand Canyon," Bagge said. "When they get home, they might think a little differently than they might not have if they didn’t go on this trip. After going on this trip, they might realize what that they are capable of."

The NAC is dedicated to helping disabled people get their lives back. While they provide activities for all disabled persons, since the beginning, war veterans have been a large part of their focus.

"When we originally started, the first $5,000 we got was from the Disabled Veterans of Utah. Peter Badewitz (co-founder of the NAC), is an injured vet from Vietnam. The very first ski lessons we had were for the Veterans Hospital in Salt Lake. We worked with V.A programs since 1985, We’ve been serving veterans since the very first." White said.

Aside from the physical injuries often associated with war, White believes her programs help in the psychological side as well.

"What happens is, there’s a whole traumatic stress syndrome," White said. "They are in really extreme environments where the value of human life shifts. Then they come back where human life is treated differently. War is very warped and it’s very hard for them. The socialization and getting out is part of that healing process.

"In war you have to rationalize that you’re killing the enemy," White continued. "When they get back they have to shift. They have a memory of this violent environment and then they have to say, ‘OK here’s a normal society.’ That’s a very challenging adjustment."

The Grand Canyon trip was somewhat of a rarity. The NAC mostly works with veterans from Vietnam.

"They have come up every Wednesday morning for the last 21 years to ski and they’ve done off and on programs," White said.

From observing veterans during her tenure at the NAC, White said the Iraq War doesn’t compare to Vietnam. Regarding the controversy surrounding Iraq, she said, "You can multiply that by about five. When the soldiers came back, everybody was against them."

After 21 years of helping the disabled, White isn’t slowing down. She sees the impact of the NAC’s programs.

"The big thing is," White said, "they realize what their capabilities are. They get down there and they think they can do anything they want. The part of adjusting is making the change."

For more information about the NAC, call 649-3991.


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