Warrior Wire: Blood, Sweat & Prosthetics

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About this time last year, I got an email from D.J. Skelton, an Army officer who had once, several years prior, been featured in Penthouse‘s annual Badass Issue. He had apparently been living in China, and had only recently found out about his appearance in our magazine. He figured that, since we’d covered him once, maybe we would be interested in hearing about a project he’d been working on, and he included a link to Paradox Sports’ website. At the time, I was putting together a list of organizations that put on active, interesting events for veterans, and PS seemed like a cool addition.

I called D.J. and asked him if he could tell me a little about the organization, and we talked for a while about Paradox Sports as well as what he’d been up to since making our 2011 Badass List. He was funny and fascinating and incredibly well spoken, so after I closed out that story, I told my editor that I thought Paradox Sports—and D.J.—would be the perfect feature for the 2014 Badass Issue’s Warrior Wire column. And, as you can guess from the fact that I’m posting this, she agreed.

My favorite thing about getting to write stories like this is getting to interview interesting people, and everyone I talked to about Paradox Sports was fascinating. There was Timmy O’Neill, the professional climber (and amateur comedian), who’d founded PS with D.J. and who was the single most positive person I had ever encountered. It’s not that he’s overly optimistic or annoyingly chipper, he’s just … positive. He’s passionate about what he does and the people he works with, and he believes that if you try hard enough to see the brighter side of things, you can actually make yourself happy by sheer force of will. And the thing is, after talking to him, you’ll start to believe that, too. He’s also incredibly grateful for everything he has and all the people in his life; he sent me a handwritten thank-you note immediately after our interview, without knowing yet what the story was or how it would turn out.

Chad Jukes was pretty impressive, too. A former high-school band geek turned soldier turned ice-climbing instructor, Chad somehow climbs ice—ice!—even though his right leg was amputated below the knee and he now has a prosthetic there. I can barely walk on a slippery sidewalk without falling flat on my face and I still have my two original legs, so I find that mind-boggling. (I mean, I also fall flat on my face on non-slippery sidewalks quite frequently, so anyone capable of more than that seems pretty athletic to me, but trust me, Chad would impress even a non-klutz.)

And then there was Reid Olmstead, a civilian volunteer working with Paradox Sports. I got to hang out with Reid a bit not long before this article came out, and he was so nice. He volunteers with a couple climbing groups that focus on helping differently abled athletes, and though the other climbers are blind or missing limbs, he truly doesn’t see them as any different from himself. Talking to him, it’s clear that he doesn’t think of those men and women as disabled, they just use some different equipment than he does. And it’s clear from meeting people he’s climbed with that they appreciate his attitude. I got to meet a couple of people who’ve worked with him, and they couldn’t resist gushing about how kind he is, and how generous with his time and knowledge. My article was done by then, so I wasn’t quizzing them or pushing for quotes—they just really wanted everyone to know what a good guy he is.

The point of all this is to say that, if you’re into the outdoors or rock- and ice-climbing, you should check out Paradox Sports. Their events are open to everyone, so no matter if you’re a veteran or civilian, require adaptive assistance or not, you can join a PS event and climb (or surf or hike) with the inspiring athletes who help organize their activities. And if you want to read more about them, you can check out my article, “Blood, Sweat, and Prosthetics,” from the July/August 2014 issue of Penthouse.

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Warrior Wire: At Their Service

Since I started writing for Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire column, I’ve really gotten to know a lot about the veterans community. I’ve always had an interest in vets’ issues because of my dad (a Vietnam vet) and my cousin (who did three tours during the Iraq war), but writing about it means I have to really know my shit.

Part of what I’ve learned in the past five years (my first Warrior Wire article, “War Songs,” was published in the March 2009 issue of Penthouse) is that there are a ton of organizations dedicated to helping vets with various aspects of their lives. Some provide financial aid, others are for health care, some fight for vet-friendly legislation, and still others are simply aimed at helping returning vets have a little fun. And there are, of course, the old standbys, the VFWs and IAVAs and American Legions, who do a little bit of everything. So when my editor asked me to put together a column of some of the best, I really had my work cut out for me.

To choose, I reached out to friends and Twitter followers who were veterans and who had experience with these groups. Then I went gung-ho on the research and dug up everything I could find. There’s a list in my notebook that’s at least several pages long, not to mention the various Post-its (paper and digital) full of names and links. I didn’t want to miss a single one.

Some were easy, like IAVA’s Rucksack program, the Honor Flight Network, and the Wounded Warrior Project. Others, like Vets in Film and Television (LA) and the GI Film Festival were projects I’d wanted to write about for a while but hadn’t been able to for one reason or another. And then there were groups that were entirely new to me but that I fell in love with.

Warriors & Quiet Waters is one that I discovered because of this article, but the more I learned about it, the more I wished I’d known about it sooner. Faye, who is one of the group’s few employees, talked to me about how WQW helps vets and what their mission is, and then she described the typical FX (fishing experience). It sounded like exactly what I was looking for. Then, a few weeks later, a documentary about WQW, Not Yet Begun to Fight, screened in NYC. I was there on opening night with the half-dozen other interested filmgoers, and got to talk to one of the participants. Seeing the film and hearing him describe the experience he’d had on his FX cemented it for me. How could I not include it?

After that, I spoke to DJ Skelton about Paradox Sports. Skelton was honored in Penthouse’s 2011 Badass Issue, and he already seemed pretty awesome. Then he told me about what PS does, helping injured vets by getting them involved in extreme outdoor activities like rock-climbing and ice-climbing. Holy hell! Hearing about how guys with one arm or one leg or prosthetic limbs are hauling ass up these mountains and cliffs was beyond inspiring. So of course they had to join the list.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The other organizations profiled in this piece are: National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Project Sanctuary, Songwriting With:Soldiers and Tunnel to Towers, but there are so many others who I just couldn’t fit.

If you’re a vet, you should check out all of these amazing organizations and see which ones fit your needs. And if you’re a civilian, consider donating time or money to the group that you most connect with. Even if you can only give a few bucks, every penny helps.

And keep sending me info on any groups I’ve left out here. Head on over to my Contact page and email, tweet, or tumbl me your favorites. Or comment below. And make sure to check out the full article from the January 2014 issue of Penthouse by clicking the picture above.