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Basic training for a new goal

Laurie Pallesen lost a military career to a boot camp injury. Now she has another mission.

By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published March 9, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - Since she was a little girl, Laurie Pallesen wanted to join the U.S. Army. She wanted to travel the world and do something that set her apart from her brothers.

She joined the service when she was 19. But with only two weeks left in boot camp, an accident injured her kneecap and shattered her dreams of being in the military.

In time, she picked up a new dream: her daughter's figure skating aspirations.

She stayed up until dawn sewing outfits for her daughter, Rebecca. When flying got too pricey, Pallesen and her daughter, a two-time USA Roller Sports free-dance champion, drove through the night to competitions all over the country.

Now Rebecca is 21, her skating days behind her.

And Pallesen, 47, is preparing to do something for herself.

"She was always in the limelight," Pallesen said, "so this is my chance."

* * *

After she enlisted, the Army sent Pallesen for six weeks of boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky.

One night, Pallesen was riding in the back of a truck headed to boot camp war games. A recruit standing near Pallesen was holding an M-16. Suddenly, the combat rifle accidentally slid off the recruit's shoulder and hit Pallesen's left knee.

At the time, Pallesen didn't think much of the incident.

"I said 'Ow,' " but I didn't realize how bad it was. The next morning, I could hardly move."

Even so, Pallesen got her certification from boot camp. She entered a military institute in New Mexico, but she was medically disqualified because of her knee problems.

The M-16 had broken off a piece of her cartilage. In 1979, Pallesen had the first of many surgeries.

"He (the doctor) said you might want to think about doing something different with your career," Pallesen said.

Pallesen struggled with anger and disappointment as she watched her military dreams fade away.

As the years passed, Pallesen spent weeks in hospitals, wore leg braces and reluctantly rolled around in a wheelchair when she was too tired to walk. She's had 13 knee surgeries.

A sedentary lifestyle caused Pallesen to balloon to 290 pounds.

Pursuing her daughter's dream wasn't just a mother's duty. It was Pallesen's chance to learn how to dream again.

"I was so busy raising her and I was always with her," Pallesen said of Rebecca. "I never had time for anything else."

Until recently. Last year, someone at the VA facility in Gainesville, where Pallesen receives care, told her about the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Colorado.

The clinic offers physical rehabilitation for disabled veterans through sports like skiing and snowboarding. The five-day clinic, co-sponsored by Disabled American Veterans, costs about $700,000 to put on.

The trip will cost Pallesen about $1,500. Her apartment complex and the DAV chapter in Gainesville donated half the money. Pallesen still needs about $700.

Pallesen plans to go cross country skiing at the clinic. She wanted to try something she'd never done before.

"It's something for her to do for herself, and I am proud of her," Rebecca said. "Her life has always been about me. She threw her life and energy into me and not paid attention to herself. Now, she's learning there is time for herself."

* * *

The sports clinic began in 1981 for disabled veterans at the VA Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo. About 78 local veterans attended.

Special ski equipment was used. For example, one-legged skiers used outriggers, or forearm crutches with ski tips attached, to help them balance.

The clinic branched out nationwide in 1987.

"Skiing does amazing things for people," said Sandy Trombetta, chief of recreational therapy and clinic organizer. "It looks out of the realm for some, but it has tremendous impact on people's psyche and rehabilitation."

Now, the clinic draws about 350 people from all over the country.

Veterans can learn to play sled hockey, go snowmobiling and scuba diving and try other sports at the event.

"They think, 'If I can do this, there's so much more I can do,' " Trombetta said. "It tends to jump-start their rehab."

* * *

To prepare for the clinic, Pallesen works out twice a week using an elliptical machine at Shapes, a local gym.

She's lost 70 pounds since she started working out a few years ago.

"I think she's overcome her biggest challenges, with her weight and the disability," said Angel Russo, a membership consultant at Shapes. "Anything from here is a cakewalk."

Pallesen hopes so. She bides her time reading about the clinic on the Internet, swing dancing on weekends and working two jobs to raise money for her trip.

She's counting down the days until April 1.

"This is going to be a challenge," Pallesen said, "but I'm ready."