As Veterans' Day approaches, many of us find ourselves asking how we can pay tribute to those who have served our country. For the National Ability Center, it's a question asked and answered every day of the year through extensive and ever-expanding military programs. According to NAC Interim CEO Kevin Stickelman, approximately 1,350 individuals participate in the NAC's military and veterans programs annually and two out three of the top populations served by the non-profit are active duty and injured military and veterans. Programming includes everything from personalized, individual lessons to seven-day retreats where veterans can learn together. Most importantly, military can sign up for any of the NAC's programs at no cost (simply by filling out a scholarship application). There is also a Military Epic Pass available to veterans through Park City Mountain/Vail Resorts, a longtime partner of the NAC.
Marijka Temple (medically retired in 2017), a post-9/11 veteran who served tours in Iraq (twice), the Horn of Africa, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan (three times), is just one of the many veterans who have participated in the NAC's programs. During her final tour in Afghanistan, Temple sustained severe injuries from her mid-back down to her heels due to an IED explosion. In addition to these injuries, she also suffered two strokes in 2014 and deals with PTSD from the trauma she experienced while serving. Temple first learned about the NAC while on a Wounded Warrior project in Palo Alto, CA and then came to Park City to participate in a Soldier Ride.
"I used to be a semi pro-cyclist before the Navy, but after my injuries, any time I tried to ride an upright bike, I would just fall. I started using recumbents with Wounded Warrior," says Temple. "At the NAC, I decided I wanted to try and get on an upright bike again. Everyone there is just so enthusiastic, supportive, and motivating all the time. They got both the recumbent and upright bikes ready for me, just in case. The whole time, they kept me in view, checked in, and supported me. I still wasn't at 100 percent, but I rode that upright bike the whole time and felt so good. I had my freedom back. It had been years since I'd been on a bike that way."
As Temple praises the NAC, it's really the emotion in her voice that drives home how life-changing coming to Park City has been for her and other veterans. "These programs are so critical, so important. I know without them, life expectancy for veterans would be so much lower," affirms Temple. "After coming back, the focus is on getting better, but to do that veterans need something to look forward to. The NAC programs make you think, 'I'm back. I can do things. I can be okay. I can go further. I can fight. I can achieve. This programming saves lives."
But the NAC's work resonates far beyond the events themselves, as evidenced by the lasting impacts of Temple's experience at the Women's Veterans Retreat this summer. "It was so wonderful, I made so many amazing connections with other women. There are a lot of us, but female vets aren't easy to find," says Temple. "We've continued the relationships through Facebook and texting. We talk to each other every day and can easily support each other if anyone is feeling down. It's all through the NAC program, we all think it was incredible." This veterans' support network is equally vital to the overall well-being of veterans as they take on the challenges of daily life.
In addition to their regular programming, the NAC will be hosting a special tribute to veterans ahead of the upcoming holiday. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018 from noon to 1:30 p.m., the non-profit pays special tribute to veterans through the annual "Saluting Our Heroes" luncheon at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Purple Heart war hero Lieutenant Colonel Tres Smith, U.S. Marine Corps (retired in 2018) will serve as the keynote speaker. Having suffered six bullet wounds during his service, Lt. Col. Smith is personally connected to the NAC and shares their commitment of building the adaptive nation. Major Peter Way of the United States Army (retired) will also join this year’s event as the participant speaker.
"Veterans Day provides us with an opportunity to celebrate those who we aim to uplift and honor every day of the week through the National Ability Center’s military programming. Our community thrives on passion for our country, creating possibilities and inclusion for all," says the NAC's Sticklman. "The 'Saluting Our Heroes' luncheon allows us to express our deepest gratitude and pay tribute to our armed forces and all of those who have so selflessly fought for our country and our freedom."
The “Saluting Our Heroes” luncheon is free and open to the public, but guests are required to register for the annual event (register here). A donation of $100 to help continue the NAC's work with veterans is suggested.