Monday, September 28, 2020
Robert Gates Salutes Local Vets, Higher Ground
Former Secretary of defense Robert Gates told listeners that he came to care about the soldiers as if they were his own sons and daughters he was sending off to war.
Sunday, July 10, 2016


Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted to being surprised as he looked out over a tent full of veterans Saturday night.

“I had thought I would be addressing veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, as he noted those who had instead fought in Korea and Vietnam.

“Welcome to Sun Valley!” quipped one of the veterans.

Joshua Watson offers hors d’oeuvres to Wally Lee and Dave Poole.

Gates worked hard for his dinner Saturday night at Higher Ground Sun Valley’s fundraiser, presenting a couple speeches and posing for numerous pictures.

He described a former Marine sniper who lost both legs in Afghanistan but took down an elk at 820 yards in a hunting camp provided by a therapeutic recreation program similar to Higher Ground.

“He might have lost his legs but he didn’t lose his aim. We’ve got to have these experiences for young men and women, and that’s why programs such as Higher Ground are so transformative,” he said.

Nearly 550 men and women turned out for the fundraiser held under a big tent on a sun-splashed lawn bordering a lake in Golden Eagle.

Robert Gates, in the middle of this group of veterans, said that the United States had already been in Afghanistan longer than World War II and in Iraq longer than the Korean War when he became Secretary of Defense.

They admired one another’s war medals and perused silent auction items ranging from a trip to Nashville for the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association awards to a trip to Churchhill Downs.

Many pledged money for specific programs—it costs $1,000 to sponsor a hand cyclist, $1,585 to sponsor a Special Olympian, $1,500 to put someone through a backcountry monoski camp and $5,600 to purchase an off-road adaptive cycle.

Gates noted that he had been a university president working with 18- to 24-year-olds wearing shorts and flip flops prior to becoming Secretary of Defense. A few days later he found himself in Iraq standing next to young men and women the same age “in full body armor in harm’s way every day.”

The abstract became real, he said, as he saw the toll war took on lives—“lives that were ruined, lives that were lost.”

Among those carrying the flags was Grant Swindle, who has been with Higher Ground since it began in 1999 as Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. Swindle has done everything, from swimming to touring the ice caves with the group, but he likes sled hockey the best.

He began to fight battles on the home front for better treatment for wounded vets at Walter Reed Hospital, for vets battling an “impenetrable bureaucracy” and for better armored vehicles that he said have saved countless lives.

“My wars are over now but the wars for those who fought will continue the rest of their lives, and that’s why the works of Higher Ground are so important. Transformative programs of Higher Ground say ‘We care and that we will never forget,’ ” he said.

Higher Ground has served several hundred veterans and their families over the past several years, said Peta Prudden Verhaeghe, the organization’s development outreach manager. It has also served a couple hundred adults and youth with disabilities who have never set foot in combat boots.

Among them, backcountry skier Wally Lee, who became paralyzed while sledding with his children.

This group of medal winners includes Hayward Sawyer, Gregg Wooldridge, Jay Johnson, Mike McCabe and John Foley.

“When you can’t walk, you lose part of yourself,” he said. “When you can’t walk, you lose your connection to humanity.”

Lee described how angry he was for seven years until he was able to get back on the snow in a monoski. The culmination came this past winter when he took part in Higher Ground’s new backcountry ski program using a snowcat at Soldier Mountain.

“It had been eight years since I had fun,” he said, choking up as he described the feeling of being able to get back out on an open slope that no one had skied.

Dave Poole lives in Bozeman, Mont., but comes to Sun Valley as often as he can to ski with Higher Ground and take part in the organization’s new off-road hand cycle camps.

“It’s a very unique program. They stay up to date with the latest in adaptive technology and programming. They allow you to get away from your wheelchair and go places you couldn’t go on wheelchair or in an automobile,” he said.

Sam Von Cleff, a former Army mechanic and medic,  moved to Sun Valley after taking part in a female veterans camp. She now works for Hyperbarics and volunteers  with Higher Ground.

“Hyperbarics and Higher Ground saved my life,” said Von Cleff, who was injured in an IED explosion.  “Hyperbarics helped with my PTSD and Higher Ground gave me the human bonds that I craved.

John Foley a motivational speaker who served in the Navy, said he turned out for the affair, in part because of Higher Ground’s emphasis on treating spouses, as well as the wounded warriors.

“I support Higher Ground because they take care of the people who took care of us,” he said. “And, they’re such a pillar of the community, a model of what a non-profit should be in the way they give back.”


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