Wise Person Said: Leif Nelson

Posted On: Friday, 27 August 2021

For years, the American Legion Auxiliary has had close ties with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in multiple ways. One of our biggest partnerships is through co-presenting the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
NVCAF comes from the VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events, which provides veterans with opportunities for health and healing through adaptive sports and therapeutic art programs. ALA National President Nicole Clapp’s focus has been on adaptive sports, intertwining with the VA’s focus on healing our nation’s veterans. Although this Auxiliary administrative year is coming to an end, working with the VA to help veterans through sports and the arts will continue in an effort to reach even more veterans. 
Leif Nelson

How long have you been in your role as U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs director of National Veterans Sports Programs & Special Events? 
I’ve been the director for four years and working on my 17th year working for the VA. 

Do you have any connections to veterans or the military that might have sparked a passion for this line of work? 
I have a similar story to a lot of families — my dad served in the Army Reserves and my granddad served too, so I do have those family ties. A big part of my training as a physical therapy student was when I did a rotation at the VA and I really connected with the VA and the mission. I think a combination of those factors brought me to the job.
If you could describe adaptive activities to those who have never seen or experienced activities in that way, what would you say? 
Adaptive sports are a way to level the playing field for everyone in a world that’s not designed for individuals or veterans with disabilities. We are able to adapt the sport and the equipment and environment and make it a place to thrive. Sports and arts are both very powerful.
There are six programs you oversee as director. Can you briefly describe each? 
The National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego is for newly injured veterans through summer sports such as surfing. The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic is in Colorado with alpine skis and snowboarding and a realm of winter sports. The National Veterans Wheelchair Games includes over 600 veterans whose primary form of mobility is the wheelchair. The National Veterans Golden Age Games is a sports competition for 55-and-over veterans of varying levels of abilities. The National Disabled Veterans TEE Tournament is our adaptive golf program. It’s in Iowa each year. And we have the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. 

Why do you think it’s important to offer this many different programs? 
We want to reach as many veterans as we can. There are a lot who still don’t know about these programs, so we want to increase awareness about it. The vision is to have adaptive sports and therapeutic arts as part of every rehab plan for a veteran with a disability. I do think adaptive sports and the arts make an incredibly big impact when delivered in the medical model. 

When life gets tough, do you look toward veterans in adaptive activities for inspiration?
I think everyone, including myself, is inspired by what the veterans we see are able to accomplish. Even they inspire themselves in some cases. 

What advice would you have for veterans who may not be sure about participating in adaptive activities? 
It’s all about identifying what is your obstacle, what is your barrier you have to overcome — whatever is preventing you from putting yourself out there. But you don’t have to do it by yourself; it’s fine to accept the help. 

Any closing thoughts? 
There are more adaptive sports and therapeutic arts opportunities available than the readers who are reading this right now are probably even aware of. Find them, and get involved and get engaged and then judge for yourself on the impact and benefit. 

ALA Mission

In the spirit of Service, Not Self, the mission of the American Legion Auxiliary is to support The American Legion and to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of our veterans, military, and their families, both at home and abroad. For God and Country, we advocate for veterans, educate our citizens, mentor youth, and promote patriotism, good citizenship, peace and security.