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Working with wounded veterans to get them back onto playing field

Working with wounded veterans to get them back onto playing field

Those injured in the military sometimes 'feel guilty or they don't feel social anymore'
Working with wounded veterans to get them back onto playing field
Don Tallman with his son Kaleb and Gabriella Tallman on the slopes of Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts.
Photographer: Provided

GLENVILLE — Don Tallman’s favorite moment is frozen in a photo of him and his two kids on the slopes of Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts.

The photo shows Tallman in a bi-ski, with Kaleb, who is posing on his snowboard, and Gabriella, who is sporting a pair of skis and smiling. For some families, there are tons of chances to take photos like this. For Tallman, the photo marks the first time in years he was able to do something active with his children. 

It’s a chance he wants to give others through his new position as program liaison with STRIDE’s Wounded Warrior Program. STRIDE Adaptive Sports is a non-profit organization that helps people find ways to play sports in spite of injuries or disabilities.

“We only have three full-time employees total at STRIDE, so our program managers are volunteers, and that is why we gave a role to Don," said STRIDE’s founder, Mary Ellen Whitney. "Combat–injured veterans are an elusive group and often do not want recognition or alignment with an adaptive organization, even though they may need it.  So many fall through the cracks."

As a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army, Tallman is the ideal candidate for the position, Whitney said. The organization's Wounded Warrior Program (not to be confused with the national Wounded Warrior Project), works with local wounded veterans to get them back onto the playing field.

For many veterans, getting out of the house and back into sports can be just as emotionally daunting as it is physically challenging. As a wounded warrior, Tallman is all too familiar with those challenges.

Throughout his 20 years of service, he always expected to serve in conflict zones. In Tallman’s words, that’s how he wanted to serve. He thought he was finally going to get beyond training when he was sent to Afghanistan in 2008.

But during a run about three months into the yearlong tour, he tore some ligaments in his foot and was removed by medevac. Other health problems arose: Tallman suffered nerve damage along the left side of his body and had to have a neurostimulator implanted in his back. 

“I was in the Marine Corp for eight years, and I signed up for every conflict I could possibly sign up for and never went anywhere,” Tallman said. “That’s one of the reasons why I got out of the Marines.”

He was in the Marines from 1990 to 1998. He then enlisted in the Army in 2002.

While he was deployed all over the world, including in Okinawa, he never saw action.

Although he didn’t retire from the military until 2013, he was on medical hold from 2008 almost until the end of his military career.

“They had me on about 13 different medications at one time,” Tallman said. Because he was on medical hold, he wasn’t allowed to work either. 

So he went from a regimented work schedule, at a job he loved, to sitting in a hospital bed or at home, waiting to heal. This brought on a phase of depression and self-inflicted solitude. 

Finally, in 2011, he was able to come back to his Capital Region home with his wife, Sharon and his two kids, Caleb and Gabriella, through a community-based order of transition unit. 

“You get your medical care and while you get your medical care, you call in every day, you make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and you’re checking in with the unit. Then you’ve also got to be doing something to keep busy, so I was volunteering with the Wounded Warrior Project,” Tallman said. 

But after two years of volunteering, he felt like he wasn’t really connecting with people in a way that made a difference. 

In 2013, he heard about STRIDE’s Wounded Warrior Program and immediately got involved. 

Through the program, he’s able to connect veterans with one another and as he says, “get them out of the house.” 

“A lot of people, when they’re injured in the military, either feel guilty or they don’t feel social anymore. And that’s how I was for quite a while,” Tallman said. 

But from his experience, getting back a sense of camaraderie is some of the best medicine. 

Trying out new sports helps too, he’s found.

When Whitney first asked him to come skiing with the STRIDE program, Tallman refused, saying that he was too injured and that he didn’t know how. But for about three years, she persisted. 

Late last year, using a bi-ski, Tallman descended Jiminy Peak, in Hancock, Massachusetts, to meet his kids at the bottom.

“I had a blast. It was still very painful. I was hurting for about a week after that, but I had a good time and I got to ski with my kids. My son snowboards and my daughter just started skiing. It was really nice to be able to do something with the kids [that was] active,” Tallman said. 

Now he’s planning to use experiences like that to persistently get other wounded warriors in the Capital Region onto the slopes. Through the program, he’s also hoping to get more veterans out camping, cycling and even trying out a few water sports.

“It made me more confident of what I can do physically and it made me appreciate having time to spend with my kids doing something,” Tallman said.  

In celebration of Armed Forces Day, STRIDE is hosting a camping trip for wounded warriors and their families.

When the Gazette spoke with Tallman in early May, only a few veterans and their families had signed up and, according to Whitney, attendance is an issue for many STRIDE events. 

But Tallman is working to change that. Through his involvement in the community -- he volunteers with the Hudson Mohawk Young Marines, Legacy Project and the VFW -- Tallman will be able to connect STRIDE with veterans who need it the most. 

“My job isn’t necessarily recruiting,” Tallman said. It’s more about connecting with wounded warriors who may otherwise go under the radar and not get the chance to camp or ski with their families. 

For more information on STRIDE’s Wounded Warrior program, click here.

Warrior Weekend

  • WHEN: Friday to Sunday
  • WHERE: SCORE Campgrounds, 2182 State Route 203, Chatham
  • WHAT: Tent-camping, yoga and meditation sessions, horseback riding, archery and a trip to the Chatham Brewery.  
  • HOW MUCH: Free for veterans and their families.
  • MORE INFO: RSVP to Program Director Megan Evans [email protected] or call 518-598-1279.
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