Paul Milton, a partially paralyzed veteran from Dexter, appeared pleased as he finished a cross-country ski run at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.

Although mostly paralyzed on his left side and usually dependent upon a cane, Milton, 62, skied unassisted last Friday, making use of a pair of boots that stabilized his left leg.

“At night, I dream about running,” Milton said. “This is like fulfilling the dream. When I’m on the skis, I’m not paralyzed, if that makes sense. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Milton, who served in the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet in Naples, Italy, as a boatswain’s mate in the early 1970s, suffered a work-related spinal injury in 2009. He has since received medical assistance at the Togus VA Medical Center. But, until January, when Milton enlisted in the free Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training (VAST) program at Pineland, he had few opportunities to exercise. Every Wednesday morning, he now travels in a VA bus to go skiing at Pineland.

“I get more exercise skiing here than I probably did in the last six years combined,” Milton said.

Last weekend, Milton joined nine other veterans for the program’s second annual biathlon camp. This year’s event included veterans from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, many of whom have been homeless. After two days of training on Friday and Saturday, the weekend culminated in three teams of veterans competing in a 4K biathlon relay race on Sunday morning, according to Sgt. Kristina Sabasteanski, the director of the program, as well as a 10-year U.S. Army veteran and a biathlon competitor at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics.

“It was all fun, but they definitely put some effort into it,” Sabasteanski said. “The competitiveness that many veterans have came out.”

At the Friday training session, Lance Cpl. Ryan Bugler, 35, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Massachusetts who declined to say where he had served, was firing a pellet biathlon gun from a chair at an ad hoc shooting range. According to Bugler, a partial paraplegic who said his injury was partly service-related, the adaptive sports camp invoked for him a sense of freedom and “no boundaries.”

“It helps veterans like myself who can’t get out,” he said. “The worst thing someone being paralyzed can do is put on weight. We can’t do really normal exercise. So being out here and doing this is exercise.”

According to Sabasteanski, the adaptive sports program started in May 2012 and operates one morning a week for 40 weeks a year. It typically serves about 150 veterans a year, roughly 90 percent of whom are Mainers, she said. About 75 percent of program participants suffer from a service-related injury.

The biathlon weekend is one of several camp-style events that the program puts on annually, Sabasteanski said.

“We also like to do a more intense four-day camp for veterans that can tolerate more skiing, more instruction,” she said. “It kind of enhances that camaraderie because they stay together for four days.”

In warmer months, the program transitions from weekly skiing and snowshoeing classes to fishing, cycling, archery and wheelchair basketball, according to Sabasteanski.

The program receives plenty of volunteer assistance, as well, she said – and mostly from veterans. This year’s biathlon camp received support from about 15 volunteers, most of whom are veterans.

“One of our big mottoes is, ‘Veterans helping veterans,’” Sabasteanski said.

Milton, who lives alone in Dexter, said the cross-country skiing helped him feel “independent.” At the same time, the weekend-long camp experience, he said, made him feel like part of a community.

“The companionship of fellow veterans was awesome,” Milton said. “The first day everyone was into themselves but by the end of the weekend we were all friends. This weekend helped all the vets physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Lance Cpl. Ryan Bugler, 35, a Marine Corps veteran from Massachusetts, fires a pellet biathlon gun at a training session for Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training program’s annual biathlon camp Friday. Rangemaster Cpl. Lou Albert, a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran from Portland who volunteers with the adaptive sports program, assists Bugler.Staff photo by Ezra SilkPaul Milton, 62, a U.S. Navy veteran from Dexter, finishes a ski run Friday at the Pineland Farm’s Veterans Adaptive Sports & Training program’s annual biathlon camp. Partially paralyzed on his left side and usually dependent upon a cane, Milton describes skiing at Pineland as a “wonderful feeling.”Staff photo by Ezra Silk

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