John Barnes

Every year, one participant is chosen for The Disabled American Veterans Freedom Award for Outstanding Courage and Achievement. This award is given to the veteran whose outstanding courage and achievement is an example to all disabled veteran athletes. The award recognizes the veteran who excels while taking a giant step forward in their rehabilitation process. This is the veteran who proves to the world that physical disability does not bar the doors to freedom.

The 2010 DAV Freedom Award is presented to a soldier whose journey from a mortar attack in Iraq to the mountain of Snowmass encompasses the horrors of traumatic brain injury and the hope of recovery from devastating injury.

Six weeks after 9/11, as our nation prepared its answer to the horrific terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, a young man from Tampa Bay, Florida skipped high school on his 18th birthday to enlist in the Army.

He was the son of a Coast Guard veteran and born at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, so when the nation came under attack, he felt the need to join the fight. And in that fight, he signed on to be the best—an infantryman in the famed 101st Airborne out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.

The young soldier thrived as a “Screaming Eagle” and rose to the rank of sergeant. Like hundreds of thousands of brave men and women in uniform, the young Sergeant was sent to Iraq to help liberate the country and bring democracy to those who had only known tyranny.

On March 14, 2006, the sergeant was helping unload a supply truck in southwest Baghdad when a mortar shell came crashing down and exploded only a few feet away. Of the 17 soldiers wounded in the attack, the young sergeant received the worst. Shrapnel tore through his helmet and cut into his brain.

Teetering on the brink of death, the Sergeant was taken first to the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad and then flown to Landsthul, Germany. A short time later, he was flown back to the states, where, because of the severity of his brain injury, he was sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

With his loving and dedicated mother by his side and his young son as an inspiration, the Sergeant survived the critical phase of his injury only to be confronted by the seemingly impossible prospect of recovery.

The shrapnel still lodged in his brain caused a traumatic brain injury that included memory loss, seizures, partial paralysis and depression. Along with these injuries came the loss of identity as a soldier, loss of mobility and independence, and—as a final blow—the end of his marriage.

The black cloud of helplessness was only made worse by his self-medication with alcohol and unwillingness to dedicate himself to therapy and recovery. The injuries he was inflicting on himself were nearly as bad as those inflicted by the enemy.

His mother, Valerie, watched helplessly as her son slid further and further into despondency. Her best efforts to steer her son toward a path of recovery fell short.

Valerie had heard about an event called the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic from her good friend Cheryl Lynch. Lynch learned quite a bit about the “miracles on the mountainside” as the mother of Clinic veteran and disabled soldier Chris Lynch, who was a mentor and friend to his fellow wounded soldiers at the Poly Trauma Unit at the VA Medical Center in Tampa.

For three years, Valerie tried to convince her son to come to the Clinic, only to be met with fierce and determined resistance.

Finally, last fall, the Sergeant reluctantly agreed to fill out the application for the Clinic. He also embraced sobriety and agreed to start setting goals and taking small steps toward recovery.

He was selected to attend the Clinic and made the journey to Snowmass on Saturday.

What happened next has been described in a letter written by Valerie to the Clinic. I would like to read some of her words to you now:

“When we arrived Saturday and his luggage was nowhere to be found, my son was so convinced that this was going to be a horrible week and said we should just go home. Then, by Sunday, the altitude was affecting him greatly and he felt miserable. He was irritable, negative and just kept saying he wanted to go home. He also said he would never come back here again

“All of that changed Monday afternoon. John went snowboarding Monday morning. When he left the snow, he was excited, happy and exhilarated. He was excitedly telling everyone who would listen how he was going to get back out on the mountain Wednesday and ‘tear it up.’

“The next morning, when he woke up, he told me he felt like a million bucks. Before breakfast, he was telling me about what he wants to do when he comes back next year.”

As much as anything I’ve ever heard about the Winter Sports Clinic, Valerie’s words perfectly encapsulate the miracles that are possible here in Snowmass for the brave men and women who accept the challenge of this Clinic.

Valerie tells me that her son has smiled more over this past week than he has in the years since his injury. In addition to the sports opportunities that have allowed him to reconnect to his athletic past, the Sergeant was able to attend a TBI meeting here at the Clinic and connect with other service men and women who are enduring the same pain and struggles.

He has renewed his dedication to recovering from the mortar blast that took so much from him. Along with the love of his four-year-old son and the support of his mother, I know he will become the kind of leader he was before his injury.

It is my honor to present the 2010 DAV Freedom Award to…John Barnes.