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Winter Sports Clinic: National Guard Veteran, amputee wants to ‘live not just survive’

For nine years, doctors tried to repair Sandi Braunstein’s leg. She injured it twice in back-to-back incidents in 2007 while she was in the Minnesota National Guard, and it never properly healed.

She pushed through the first injury, which happened on a run during her final exercise at basic training. Another person in the formation fell on her leg as they were going up onto a curb. The second incident came as she was preparing to deploy to Kuwait with her unit.

A fellow soldier was working on their truck when the fuel line broke. Braunstein jumped off the back of the vehicle to help him contain the spill. But she landed on a rock, snapping her leg and three vertebrae in her back.

Surgeries—seven in total over those nine years—were unsuccessful in repairing the damage. In 2019, she elected to have her leg amputated.

This decision didn’t come lightly. Her doctor had spent time with Braunstein and her two daughters to help them understand what amputation meant.

“My youngest is like, ‘I just want my mom to be my soccer coach again and kick a soccer ball with me instead of sitting on the sidelines and falling,’” Braunstein said. “And then my other daughter … was like, ‘I just want my mom to be able to run away.’ That’s heart-stopping for me because having that limb be un-useful just put us in more danger.”

Her daughter’s comment came because Braunstein is a survivor of domestic violence. Her daughter didn’t want her to ever feel trapped again.

The surgery was successful, but not without its own complications, turning a planned two-week hospital stay into seven months. She didn’t leave the hospital until just a few days before the Covid-19 pandemic effectively shut down the United States. And because her surgery was considered elective, she wasn’t able to start her physical therapy and rehabilitation right away

Braunstein said learning to use a wheelchair and waiting for a prosthetic was hard, and learning how to use a prosthetic once she got one was nearly impossible because gyms and clinics were still mostly shut down at the time.

As an alternative, Kristin Powell, her Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recreational therapist at the time, recommended trying adaptive sports, including the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic co-presented by the VA and DAV.

Braunstein attended the clinic for the first time in 2022, but went in anxious and skeptical about what to expect. Until she experienced it.

“There was a sense of joy and a sense of peace and a sense of camaraderie that’s like when you're in the military,” she said.

It was a fresh start for her, both to be around and talk with people who had similar experiences as her with losing a limb and to be active again—something she thought she had lost forever along with her leg.

Following her trip to Snowmass, she continued to seek opportunities to be active with adaptive sports by kayaking, fly fishing and participating in a VA summer sports clinic.

She’s also active with DAV, joining Chapter 13 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, after learning the organization plays such a big role in putting on the clinic.

“I just want to be able to give back and be a part of something that has given me so much hope,” she said.

As a mother of a child with special needs, Braunstein still carries a heavy load and continues to deal with depression. In September, she attempted to end her life after suffering from a residual limb infection.

Yet, she continues to display strength and resilience. The tattoo on her forearm offers a daily reminder of the outlook she tries to maintain—a poppy with the words “I wanna live not just survive.” It’s a phrase her mentor helping her through the amputation process often said.

So, when Braunstein was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer, and her children were worried she would give up, she told them that she doesn’t give up easily and is going to keep pushing through no matter the setbacks.

“My strength comes from my struggles,” she said. “And in those struggles, you find your friends, you find your family, you find that camaraderie. And that’s what DAV has given me back, is I know there’s a lot of times that we probably feel alone, and we’re not.”

She’s looking forward to getting back to the clinic and being around others who have also faced challenges from their illnesses and injuries. She’s bringing with her the message that others can find the peace, joy and camaraderie that she felt the first time she went.

For her family, the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic “gave us everything we felt we might’ve lost in our time struggling and really turned what we felt as burdens into something beautiful and lifelong,” she said.


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