In the two decades since he retired from the Army because of multiple sclerosis, Karl Smith has dealt with feelings of isolation.
For years, the 72-year-old Vietnam veteran from Falmouth didn’t get out of the house much, not knowing when his stamina and ability to walk would fail him. Last winter, he heard about Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training in New Gloucester, a program started by fellow Army veteran and Olympic biathlete Kristina Sabasteanski. Smith was quickly able to make connections with people and get outdoors for hikes, biking and archery – sometimes using a three-wheel walker and a recumbent bike.
In March, as the pandemic limited gatherings and forced Mainers to stay home, his connection with other veterans in the program only grew. Though he was unable to get together physically with other veterans for a while, he did not feel isolated.
Sabasteanski kept the group connected virtually, with weekly Zoom chats, which became lifelines for Smith and other vets.
“I think I spent more time talking to other veterans on Zoom than I had before,” Smith said. Talking to others was comfortable and helped Smith accept and “more easily live with” what he describes as a long-standing ambivalence toward his service in Vietnam.
Though Sabasteanski has run VAST for eight years, on the campus of the nonprofit Pineland Farms, the program has been especially important to its members during the pandemic. They kept connected virtually during the first few months of shutdowns, in March and April. When they resumed the program’s weekly activities – including archery, bocce and biking – it was while wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart.
More than 160 veterans took part in the program this fiscal year, down from about 230 the year before, a drop caused by COVID-19, Sabasteanski says. The participants – who come when they can, or want – range in age from about 30 to 91. They include amputees, veterans dealing with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia and a host of other challenges. Activities include archery, cycling, fishing, orienteering, wheelchair basketball and tennis, bowling, disc golf and hiking trips. The program meets every Wednesday, and various other days during the week.
“It’s so important for them to be able to hang out with other veterans and share stories, and joy, doing something fun,” said Sabasteanski, 51. “When the pandemic hit, I thought it was really important to keep people connected.”
The program is funded by a Veterans Administration Adaptive Sports Grant, as well as individual donations, an Avangrid Foundation Grant and by Pineland Farms. The nonprofit Pineland Farms is a 5,000-acre working farm, with grounds that also house education and recreation programs, as well as several businesses.
Sabasteanski spent 10 years in the Vermont National Guard, joining when she was 25. She also competed as a biathlete – Nordic skiing and shooting – for the Army and in two Olympics. While in the Army, she got a chance to watch a Paralympic competition and was impressed with the powerful emotional impact physical activity with adaptive equipment had on people.
“I saw people with no arms and no legs, competing and accomplishing so much. Right then, I said I want to be part of that,” Sabasteanski said.
She used her G.I. Bill benefits to go to college for occupational therapy. While working in the field, she began working with veterans and moved to Maine with her husband, Matt Sabasteanski, a Maine native who served with the Army in Iraq. Matt got a job as director of outdoor recreation at Pineland Farms in 2002, and in 2012, Sabasteanski began running VAST through the nonprofit.
Being able to connect with other veterans, and hear about their military service, has been important to Smith as he’s tried to understand his time in Vietnam. He grew up in Waterville and Bar Harbor and joined the Army when he was 18. His base, in Lai Khê, was fired upon on an “almost daily basis,” he said.
“On the one hand, I’m proud of my service, that I chose to serve, but it was a pretty negative experience. I lost too many good friends,” said Smith, who spent 15 months in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, working as a company clerk for an Army aviation unit. “It was not a well-chosen war, and those of us who served were not well-regarded when we came back.”
After leaving the Army, Smith went to college and worked as a counselor and teacher for a while. But in 1981, he joined the Army’s Active Guard Reserve program, working full time for the Maine Army National Guard. After being diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS – where patients have periods of stability between relapses – he took a medical retirement in 1999 at the age of 51. He lives in Falmouth with his wife.
Smith has been attending VAST activities just about weekly this summer and fall. On a recent Wednesday morning, he was among a dozen veterans using an outdoor archery range, masks on. But he’s also gone bowling with other veterans, played bocce and hiked. His MS affects his balance and causes dizziness, so he uses walking poles and sometimes a three-wheeled walker that VAST provides. He was hoping this fall to go on a mountain biking trip with the program.
He says VAST has given him “a feeling of accomplishment and shared enjoyment in physical activity,” something that is hard to achieve with a physical disability that is sometimes severe. VAST also gives him the opportunity, and the incentive, to do more and stay connected with other veterans.
“We have a lot in common,” Smith said. “Being veterans, there’s an acceptance of each other’s experiences and that everyone has different limitations. It can be inspiring.”