By: Greg Hitchcock
WINDHAM, NY – A group of veterans ventured into the majestic Catskill Mountains in upstate New York earlier this month to learn to shoot Feinwerkbau air rifles and ski like biathletes.
Russ Myer, a physical therapist and president of the Capital Region Nordic Alliance, facilitated the two-day event with the Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF) at Windham Country Club. Myer said both organizations support military veterans and adults and youth with special needs and disabilities by providing outdoor recreation opportunities.
“It is our hope to see [that] if they like what they did here, [they will] continue sporting events like trail orienteering – skills they have learned in the military,” Myer said.
Former drill sergeant and veteran Peter Tiller said he’s used to shooting, having grown up in a family of hunters from the hinterlands of upstate New York. Tiller has trained people on the use of rifles his whole career and assisted other veterans in sighting their targets at the event.
“You work on stable firing [by] positioning your whole body,” Tiller said.
Tiller says it’s generally easier to teach unexperienced women on the use of air rifles, because men often have to unlearn what they’re used to with standard rifles. The veterans had to concentrate more on form and breathing when discharging the air rifles, Tiller said.
“Women are more still and relaxed out there, [compared to] men used to hunting rifles. With pellet guns, there is no kick,” he said.
Veteran Jacob Kuczynski, 28, of Clyde, NY served in the military for nine years before sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in the Army.
“I love shooting and target practice. [The air rifles] didn’t evoke anything from the Army. When I get the time, I go hunting, so I’m used to shooting,” he said. “I came to ASF for the camaraderie. If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be the same.”
U.S. Army veteran David Coles traveled from Pennsylvania to participate, though he said he was hesitant at first.
“My first reaction when I was invited was, ‘Is this going to be a competition?’ I haven’t skied since 1986,” Coles said.
This is Coles’ third time coming to the Catskills for an outdoor event sponsored by the Adaptive Sports Foundation, but his first time in a Nordic Biathlon.
At 51, Coles served in the U.S. Army for 27 years before sustaining a TBI during a vehicle accident in Iraq.
“My balance is not my best, and my motor skills are difficult, but the equipment was amazing. I am encouraged to do this more often,” Coles said. “This is incredible exercise with low impact.”
Before moving to Pennsylvania, Coles lived in the sunny states of California and Florida.
“You don’t realize how closed in you feel in the Northeast,” he said. “Wintertime up here gets difficult, so what do we do?”
The staff and volunteers at the Adaptive Sports Foundation support veterans as they cope with life as a civilian, says Coles.
“Veterans with TBI and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are not the same person they were when they left. You have limitations, and everything you have done before is gone,” Coles said. “A lot of organizations like ASF help find the right path for you post-military. ASF gives disabled veterans opportunities to find out what they can do.”
Greg Hitchcock is a journalist and U.S. Army veteran writing from New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.