The Marines have a saying: “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” This slogan obviously applies to the battlefield, but it’s also relevant to life as a whole. For some veterans, though, adapting and overcoming isn’t as simple as reconnecting with society and finding a job after their service concludes. Some veterans suffer disabling injuries that have permanent effects on them, both physically and emotionally. But some veterans must answer another question: How do you satisfy your need for thrills when you can no longer walk? These are highly trained and well-conditioned men and women who were used to walking and getting around independently; but after being injured, they’ve had to rely on handicap vans, wheelchairs and other devices to get around.
The answer for five disabled veterans, as it turns out, is paragliding. Similar to hang gliding, paragliding allows those confined to a wheelchair to experience the rush of being in flight. Participants roll down a hill, then roll off into open air where a hand-operated device attached to their wheelchair controls the overhead canopy that keeps the rider afloat. According to a New York Times article, experienced paragliders can spend hours in the air before returning to level ground.
Why, you ask, would a disabled veteran want to engage in risky behavior? Haven’t they already suffered and put their lives at risk enough? The Department of Veteran Affairs sees things a little differently, as do the veterans themselves; when these individuals were performing service, they jumped out of planes, operated heavy machinery and used their physical talents to defend our country. Having all that taken away in a flash may have left them wanting something more, and paragliding is a positive activity that can fill a void in their lives. As one veteran told the New York Times, “Moving is effortless again. The sense of freedom is just so incredible.”
Another major perk of paragliding is that it keeps veterans from succumbing to familiar veteran traps like depression and substance abuse. To that end, Able Flight, the group who introduced paragliding to veterans, hopes to grow the sport to the extent that participants can engage in competitive activity. That’s a critical element, particularly for veterans who are so eager to keep their physical and mental edge. As long as they have something worth fighting for, there’s no reason for them to give up on their own lives.
Although it’s the release many veterans have longed for, paragliding isn’t perfect: only five lucky vets were introduced to the sport, and there was no guarantee that these groups had the resources to expand the sport to more vets. But recently, the U.S. Paralympics supplied a significant grant to aid programs that help paralyzed veterans participate stay active and take part in activities like paragliding.
There are some technical kinks to work out; all five initial participants reported having difficulty landing their wheelchair after paragliding. Even so, they all raved about their experiences and are eager to sing the praises of paragliding.
Though paragliding may seem a bit extreme, even for those who are accustomed to living on the edge, it makes perfect sense. It takes a specific handicap – in this case, the inability to walk – and negates it. It puts the rider in control of his or her own destiny and safety, even while thousands of feet above the ground. It takes someone who has done so much to help their country and gives them exactly what they need, in a way that’s completely positive and healthy.
As the Marines say: Improvise, adapt and overcome.