On March 19, 2003, Kirk Bauer, Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA, sat watching his television as President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq. In a defining moment, he knew he would pool all resources necessary to help wounded soldiers recover from war-time injuries related to this war. The next second, he was miles into the past, lying in the Vietnamese dirt with severe injuries, wondering if he would live to see his family again, believing his death imminent.
Thirty-nine years earlier, Kirk, a non commissioned officer with the Ninth Combat Infantry Division, conducted a surprise ambush in the brush of Vietnam and discovered their weakened troop of 52 was no match for the nearly 400 North Vietnamese Army soldiers who greeted them unexpectedly in the night. No reports prepared them for a gathering of this size. In an instant, the ambushers became the ambushees.
A hand grenade went off near him, taking one leg with it. By some miracle, he survived and was carried to safety. For his service in Vietnam, Kirk was twice awarded the Bronze Star for heroism; the Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device; and the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat.
Arriving back in the U.S., Kirk found a mentor in Jim Winthers, who taught him to ski and to experience life fully again. Little did he know how technology would change drastically and allow soldiers to recover much faster with lighter weight equipment and improved therapy techniques. Looking back, he would use his experience to improve the services available to others.
Jim Winthers, a WW II veteran of the Army’s Famous 10th Mountain Ski Division, was one of the founder’s of what is now Disabled Sports USA. (Senator Bob Dole is a famous soldier who served in the 10th Mountain Division during WW II). Jim Winthers understood the therapeutic value of using sports to build confidence and fitness and a sense of accomplishment for those who become disabled; enabling them to rebuild their lives through sports.
From 1970 on, Kirk was hooked on sports and became involved with Disabled Sports USA as an instructor, Chapter President, and national Vice President. Finally, in 1982, after 12 years as a volunteer, Kirk became Executive Director of DS/USA. Over those years, technological advances would allow him, in his role with disabled sportsmen and veterans, to take that therapy to whole new levels, but not before he learned and achieved those goals himself.
Through his fervor for life and medal-winning passion for skiing, Kirk was selected to the U.S. Disabled Ski Team in 1979. In the same year he moved to The US Congress to work as a legislative aid. There, he learned about an obscure program in the Department of Education that would allow him to write a grant for funding innovative adaptive recreational programs. His legislator allowed him to work on the funding for the next year and a half. He continued to ski and volunteer with the team as an outlet for the usual stress of work and politics.
In 1982, the first innovative recreational program was funded and Kirk was on his way as the newly appointed Executive Director of Disabled Sport USA. The research and commitment necessary to complete the first grant paved the way for twenty-six plus years of funding for new and unique ways to help disabled Americans adapt successfully to the world around them, competing in sports and feeling the joy of victory and success.
“Kirk Bauer took a small, all volunteer organization and made it into the nation’s largest sports and recreation organization for physically disabled individuals; with more than 100 chapters operating in 38 states nationwide.”
Around the same time, Kirk also became aware of the poor shape of the prosthetics program of the Veterans Affairs and realized the necessity to revive the aging program. In the 50's, the VA was a leader in prosthetic supplies and services. By the 80's, the program had disintegrated into shambles. Through his work in the Congress, Kirk persuaded Congress to hold hearings on the VA Prosthetics programs and testified himself on the poor state of prosthetics for disabled veterans. As a result of these hearings, the program was reorganized, and more benefits, like the provision of adaptive sports equipment and advanced prosthetics for disabled veterans, were implemented; the program is now providing state of the art products for disabled veterans.
With new funding available, Kirk took time to think through his own recovery: what worked, what didn't, and how technology could change the lives of wounded soldiers and Americans in general. Several factors were key to success of using sports to achieve rehabilitation. Early introduction of sports after a person becomes disabled helped to build confidence and motivate the patient to rehabilitate quickly. Standardized teaching techniques and advance adaptive equipment, helped speed the time necessary to teach sport, thus providing a quick and easy success. Often basic sports skills can now be taught in a sport in less than one day! Safety was never far behind, making sure that all the activities gave the person a sense of stability, success and pride all rolled into one healing experience. In addition, the strong but lightweight carbon fiber, titanium and other materials from the space program would allow disabled individuals to ski, sail, cycle, kayak and water ski. The monoski would take individuals unable to walk down a slope again.
While he appreciated the annual sports events of the VA and other programs for the disabled, Kirk's vision provided rehabilitative therapy through sports year round. Over the years, the programs would grow across America, incorporating over 20 different winter and summer sports. Through dedication to training and careful planning, Kirk took a small, all volunteer organization and made it into the nation’s largest sports and recreation organization for physically disabled individuals; with more than 100 chapters operating in 38 states nationwide, serving 60,000 people annually.
Recent wars would send Kirk soldiers with increasing multiple amputations, resulting from the way the explosives detonated. As a result, he would continue to work on improving sports instructor and therapist training so all new trainees could become versed in adaptive technology as a part of their standard training.
Despite many advances in therapeutic aids and facilities, Kirk would constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve the world around him. For example, though facilities may now be more accessible, modifications to equipment are often overlooked that prevent disabled sportsmen from using numerous pieces of gym equipment.
“When I travel, I will often go in a hotel gym that has at least one stationery bike. Without a toe strap for me to push and pull the foot pedal, I can't make the bike pedals turn and therefore, can't get the exercise I was hoping for. Often, a simple addition, like a toe strap, would make the bike available to anyone but people don't realize it,” relates Bauer, once again extending his own experience to the population he serves, always eyeing ways to improve systems as a whole.
Because of Kirk's intense dedication and ongoing vision, disabled sportsmen across America have been inspired to achieve, to succeed and to never let go of the passion for life. Through his own tragic circumstance, he learned to stand up for the people he believed in and pull them up beside him, always giving back, forever improving on what was given to him.
Kirk Bauer was recently recognized for his lifelong work by receiving a Presidential Appointment to serve as Vice Chairman of The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and was named by President Bush to the first Presidential Delegation ever assembled to represent the USA at foreign Paralympic Games, when he attended the Winter Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy and the Summer Paralympic Games in Beijing, China. More information on Disabled Sports USA can be found at www.dsusa.org
Thank you Kirk, for sharing your Story with us.
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