Sports wasn’t always front and center with Army veteran and Move United Warfighters Ambassador Tony Drees was young. “My childhood was pretty tremulous, particularly for the first decade of my life or so,” Drees said. At a young age, he said he’s always been considered on the freakishly strong side, but it was a survival mechanism. “It wasn’t about sports. Being strong for me was a matter of actual physical survival.”
Drees had an interest in sports, but just wasn’t able to participate in them. By the time he was twelve, he got into organized sports. He liked football and was good at track and baseball. “What I liked most about sports was belonging to a team.” Also at an early age, in his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, he found himself volunteering as a gymnastics and weightlifting coach. He also served as a camp counselor for Camp Courage, a summer program for disabled youth. It was then he would discover the value of service and giving back.
Like many high school graduates, he went off to college. “After my first semester in college, I needed something else.” He gave it a try, but realized it wasn’t the right time. So he enlisted in the U.S. Army. “My grandfather was in the Air Force, my great grandfather was a Buffalo soldier in the Spanish-American War. I born on an Air Force base. It was always in me, so if you know, you know. And I knew.” Drees served for four years, from 1986 to 1990. “It changed my life forever… I got to be a part of a team.”
After that tour of duty, he returned to college. But it was once again interrupted, when in August 1990, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Private First Class Drees returned to Active Duty and was deployed as part of Operation Desert Storm. On February 25, 1991, he would survive the deadliest Scud Missile Attack of the Gulf War. “From the day I was injured, I knew this was my pivotal moment to create collective impact through the stories of my life’s adventures.”
On February 09, 2018, due to complications of infection and cancer in his war wounds, the Purple Heart recipient’s right leg was amputated at the hip. That year, he would learn how to ski again as an amputee. It was important for him to do so. “My son was heavily into skiing because his stepdad is a ski instructor,” Drees said. He spent some time with several Move United member organizations, including Ignite Sports and National Sports Center for the Disabled, both in Colorado where he now lives. It wasn’t the first time he has been on skis. When he was 18 and in the military, he was asked if he wanted to sign up for a ski trip. “I’ll try anything, I’ll do anything,” he said. But once he was on the lift heading up the mountain, he asked “How am I going to get down?” He did manage to do so, but from that moment on was hooked. “Skiing is my jam… I like to go fast.”
He also uses his love for skiing and adaptive sports in general as an analogy and a way to engage others. His focus now is to inspire, motivate, and influence others to act. “To see someone do something that you would previously think is impossible is inspiration.”
“You see a one-legged skier go by you down the mountain and you think wow. If you are at the bottom of a hill and a one-legged skier comes up to you and flips off their helmet and it’s a brown guy, I don’t care who you are but you weren’t expecting that. That wasn’t the picture of who you thought was under that helmet. Then you pay closer attention and notice I also have a little grey in my beard. Are you saying an old black guy one-legged skier… that is equity. These are all different filters, different obstacles that I’ve been able to overcome.”
He hopes that will help others change how they view things. “I’m over 50, I’m a warfighter. I’m disabled, I’m brown…I’ve also been homeless. I’ve been addicted to opioids. I’ve been divorced twice. I’ve had 74 surgeries. These are not things you find in a storybook. These are the people that are right next door to you.”
“Community is critical. It is important to have coaches and mentors who give you guidance and feedback.” Drees has had the opportunity to do so much through the Move United network. In January, he will be participating in a NOLS expedition for Leaders of Color, a 40 mile trek through the Arizona desert over a nine-day period.
As a member of Move United’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Leadership Team, he wants to encourage folks in underserved communities and showcase how they adapt. “Move United is the common thread; the only common denominator I have been able to find. This is the place, this is the movement, this is the time.”
Drees, who was named the 2021 Kirk M. Bauer Scholarship Recipient by Move United, has three personal rules he lives by: “no lies, no excuses, and never quit.”