Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Winter Sports Clinic Closing Ceremony
Snowmass, Colorado
April 1, 2022

Rick [Salgueiro, Director, VA Western Colorado HCS], thanks for that kind introduction, for your leadership of our Western Colorado Health Care System, and most importantly, for all you do for Veterans.

Let me say three things right off the bat …

First, it’s damn good to be here with a great group of Veterans …

Second, it’s great to be out of Washington DC …

And third, it’s a pleasure to be able to do those first two things in the beautiful mountains of Colorado!  So, thanks for having me!

Today’s events have been simply incredible for me—talking to amazing Veterans as they participated in many events, attending the awesome medal ceremony, and visiting with the magnificent staff and volunteers from VA and DAV who make this Winter Sports Clinic possible.

You know... all the Veteran participants here today: you inspire me. The truth is, you inspire us all. There is simply no group of people who know better than you what it means to serve.

When Veteran-athletes engage in adaptive sports, you send a powerful message to spectators, sponsors, therapists, doctors, and other Veterans—to every American, in fact.

That message is about the perseverance of Veterans and the endurance of the human spirit—and the strength of Americans, and, therefore, all of America.

Truly, you inspire us all.

And right now, that’s the kind of inspiration our country, and the world, can use more of.

I’m talking about the stories of Veterans like Runar Polluson and Orlando Perez.

Runar is a Navy Veteran with almost a decade of active and reserve service as a corpsman, taking care of Marines and special operations servicemembers.

After leaving the Navy in 1990, Runar earned his degree as a Registered Nurse and then his Master’s in Nursing—working in trauma wards and emergency rooms in Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida.

In 2007, he saw the light—and came to work at VA!  While working at the Miami VAMC, he went on to earn his Doctorate in nursing—applying his skills and compassion to caring for fellow Vets—and eventually became the Chief Nurse at the Miami VA Medical Center.

But in 2014, he had to leave VA—a couple of years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Receiving treatment at a VA Spinal Cord Injury Center at the Miami VAMC, he learned for the first time about the opportunities and camaraderie presented at our adaptive sports clinics.

Runar has now twice attended the Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego, and he’s a repeat participant in this event, the Winter Sports Clinic, here at Snowmass—making his 8th or 9th appearance this year—he’s practically lost count!  

Runar, thanks for being here, thanks for being a peer counselor for other Vets, for sharing your experiences with so many others, and for inspiring us all with your determination and grit.

Everyone: Please join me in recognizing Runar Polluson—Runar, please raise your hand!

Orlando Perez is an Army Veteran from Puerto Rico—I recently had the privilege of meeting him and his wonderful wife, Marcy, in Salt Lake City.

In 1995, while training for a deployment, Orlando fell from a wall, landing on his back. The fall caused a cyst on his spinal cord that eventually left him paralyzed from the waist down.

And then, partly because of his involvement in VA adaptive sports, he competed in wheelchair basketball for the Puerto Rico Basketball Team.

In 1999, he received the Puerto Rico Wheelchair Basketball Rookie of the Year Award. He won the 2005 National Veteran Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games Award. And in 2017, he was the flag bearer for Puerto Rico at the 2017 Wheelchair Basketball Americas Cup.

Over the course of his career, he earned four international medals, retiring from wheelchair basketball in 2017.

Orlando also attended the Winter Sports clinic four times, in 2006, when he was first introduced to skiing, and again in 2007, in 2015, and in 2019. After retiring from the Puerto Rico basketball team, he took up Para-alpine skiing.

 And just this month, he was in Beijing for the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games—where he was again the flag bearer for his team.

Orlando says of Para-alpine skiing, "I found something that I can keep up with right next to everybody else. Able-bodied skiers, sit-down skiers, we can all go as fast as we want. If I don't make it, it's all me, and I like that. I like to put that pressure on myself, because it's just going to help open my mind to how I can help others."

Veterans like Runar and Orlando, their growth, participation, and encouragement of others, are the epitome of what this Winter Sports Clinic ... they’re the epitome of what all our adaptive sports events are about. And like all worthwhile events, this clinic is the product of teamwork and collaboration.

So let me thank and acknowledge a few folks who made the events of the past week possible:

To Andy Marshall, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Commander, John Kleindienst, your National Voluntary Services Director, and all the good folks from DAV who partner with us to host this event—as you have for over 35 years now—thank you all.

My deep appreciation as well to all of the many sponsors whose generosity and compassion made it possible for us to be here again this year;

To all the volunteers who come to Snowmass to help create this “Miracle on the Mountain”—my heartfelt thanks for your spirit of generosity;

To my dedicated and enthusiastic VA colleagues—you guys are the best. Let me especially recognize—Dr. Lu Beck and the National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events team; Leif Nelson [Director, National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events]; Teresa Parks [Director, National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic]; Ralph Gigliotti [Director, VA Rocky Mountain Network (VISN 19)]; and, to all the VA doctors, rehab therapists, clinicians and other dedicated employees at medical centers and VA facilities across the Nation who help enable Veterans to be more independent and active in outdoor activities, sports, and fitness—this year, every year, and in future years. Thank you all.

To the local leaders and officials who always make Veterans and clinic staff so welcome here in beautiful Snowmass—thank you.

Finally, I offer my personal thanks and gratitude to the spouses, parents, families, caregivers, and friends of our participants. It takes a strong foundation and support system of love, care, and compassion to get here. You are that foundation—so thank you all.

Let me close my remarks by again talking to this years’ participants. I hope you all had a great time this week on the mountain. And I trust that some of what you did here, saw here, and accomplished here will stay with you after this closing ceremony.

Because this Winter Sports Clinic is about more than what you did here this week—it’s also about navigating challenges and how you choose to live your lives the other 51 weeks of the year.

And as I said at the top, you are an inspiration to us all.

God bless you all, your families, and your Caregivers.  And may he bless all our men and women in uniform, all our Veterans, and this great Nation.

Thank you.

And now, I’d like to take this opportunity to present a well-deserved award. Rick Salgueiro, will you please join me back on stage?

“The Secretary’s Award is presented to the Management and Staff of VA Western Colorado Health Care System in recognition and appreciation of your continued support and commitment to serving Veterans participating in the 2022 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.”

Rick, congratulations to you and to all the hard-working VA folks who, year after year, work with our partners to make this event so special and so successful. Well done!