By Massad Ayoob
A generation of wounded warfighters has returned to their homeland to pick up the pieces of their lives. For many, shooting was a significant part of their life experiences, and of their very identity in some cases.
One man who has endeavored to help to restore that is Rick Cicero, who created a great program called Learn to Shoot Again (LTSA) — a division of Honored American Veterans Afield (HAVA). The idea for this program was born back in 2015.
“I was injured in 2010,” Cicero lends. “I had done a stint as an army paratrooper [7th Special Forces Command], and later became a cop — heavily involved as a firearms instructor. I later went overseas as a civilian contractor. The day came when my bomb dog looked back at me with one of his ‘I found it’ expressions, and five seconds later I was blown up.”
The IED took Rick’s right arm and right leg. He continues, “I walked out of the hospital four-and-a-half months later, got back to the range and figured out how I used to shoot wasn’t working anymore. I had limited strength and feeling in my left arm, and had lost my dominant arm. My remaining leg was pretty weak, and it affected my shooting stance. It became a matter of how to make the best of what I had left.”
Rick’s dad is a firearms instructor as well, and they worked on the problem together. This enabled him to develop his own improvisations. Rick had a buddy missing an arm and another in a wheelchair from being shot in the back.
“We went to a 3-Gun match, and came up with ways to make things work,” he relates.
Rick had a lot going on during this period. He underwent an osseointegration procedure on his right arm. (It involves screwing titanium into bone, allowing prosthetics to be attached.)
“It’s given me much more ability,” Cicero shared. “I have a real support hand now for handguns and
Rick Cicero (right) addresses a student during an LTSA session. “Teaching stance and movement is critical when learning to walk again is a daily task,” he lends.
Formation Of LTSA
LTSA was formed in 2016, and was accelerated
after Rick made contact with prominent figures at HAVA.
“I started doing some volunteering with HAVA a year before we started Learn To Shoot Again. HAVA supported lodging and logistical support for a 3-Gun match for injured servicemen,” Cicero said.
The productive connection grew from there.
“I established a good relationship with HAVA and Tom Taylor [HAVA chairman and SIG SAUER CMO and EVP, commercial sales]. Adam Painchaud, who was at SIG Academy at the time, liked the idea of training disabled vets who had significant physical injuries to adapt to shooting again,” Cicero recalled. “When SIG found out about LTSA, they were eager to help. They put us through pistol and carbine instructor courses at the SIG Academy.”
Two years after its formation, LTSA’s premise is based on teaching wounded combat veterans how to adapt and overcome physical challenges. In Rick’s case, he was naturally right-handed and right-eye dominant before he was wounded. He has transitioned to both eyes open now, aiming with his left eye while squinting the right one slightly. “It’s something we teach a lot of our students who have to transition,” he added.
Helping students shift to the non-dominant eye to aim is just one of LTSA’s adaptive strategies. “Extra equipment is not entirely how we do it. It’s about building new skills,” Rick emphasized.
LTSA’s long-range program equipped this legally-blind shooter to hit targets out to 900 yards.
Budding Instructor Program
The LTSA concept is spreading, with 12 instructors stationed throughout the U.S. (Rick says there are plans for more, as well.) To date, the LTSA team has conducted classes in 15 states.
“We just ran classes in Maryland and West Virginia; we’ll be in Texas soon. It’s about bringing what we have to those we serve. We bring the kit and camper; my wife and I head off and bring the schoolhouse with us, so to speak.”
As former students themselves, LTSA instructors have the ability to relate to the students in class.
“Our instructors come from our student base,” Cicero said. “We get them certified through the NRA first, then make arrangements to put them through classes at the SIG Academy. We maintain instructor skills with input from outside master instructors. They need to do a certain amount of instructor development every year, then work with me.”
During classes, students are able to handle a cross-section of firearms in varying platforms and configurations.
“We have a variety of firearms to fit the individuals, everything from the Ruger Mark II .22 pistols to revolvers and numerous-size auto pistols,” Cicero observed. “We make a point of having ambidextrous platforms like the newer Smith & Wesson M&P M2.0 and SIG P320.”
Accessories play a crucial role in adaptive training, as well.
“I like to use the SIG Pistol Brace as a teaching tool for a lot of folks. It lets us shoot a long gun effectively again,” he shared. “We teach variations of using the sling for that style of shooting.”
HAVA’s roots are firmly entrenched in the shooting industry, as its conception was first launched by a group of executives from several leading companies. In its 11 years, it has developed a strong network of industry support. This has continued with the formation of LTSA.
“SIG has really been wonderful: Ron Cohen, Tom Taylor and Ron Goslin have been really great to us,” Cicero lends. “So has Smith & Wesson, where I deal primarily with Jan Mladek. Others like John MacLellan at Mossberg, Beth Shimanski at Savage and Rebecca McCoy at IWI have been a pleasure to work with. Armada Ammunition, Century Firearms and Leupold have been wonderful as well. Katie Godfrey at Kestrel has been really helpful to our long-range aspect. Kershaw Knives, Propper Uniforms and Techwear, a Canadian company, have all been good to us too.”
Rick affirms, “With the amount of students we’re able to teach, we could never do it without the sponsorships. We train 10 months a year with a small budget. We try to show students what’s available inexpensively. We get discounts for students from various manufacturers.”
Advice For Retailers
Rick shared some advice to retailers on how to accommodate injured veterans or disabled customers at their store or in training.
“It’s not about what they want to buy, it’s about what is best for the individual. I have a lot of guys who come to me with fine guns that just aren’t right for the shape they’re in right now. I feel bad when a student walks up with a beautiful new 1911 .45, because they’re trying to buy accuracy instead of skill. I often say, ‘Let’s back you up to a .22, teach you to shoot again before we get the .45 back in your hand.’”
An important lesson here: There will be times an injured shooter discovers a particular accessory he or she didn’t favor before is now an essential.
“We’ve found vertical foregrips for rifles improve things for a lot of shooters who didn’t care for the accessory before they sustained arm injuries. We all have to admit what we don’t know. If you run into a problem with a challenged shooter, call those of us who do. I’ve trained hundreds of people with physical challenges. Some had more capabilities than they realized, some were worse off than I was.”
Cicero has discovered some counterintuitive things. For instance, many would think a lighter trigger would help someone with an injured hand, but he says, “Some shooters with nerve damage are dangerous with very light triggers, but something like an NY-1 trigger in a GLOCK is smooth to pull, and has enough resistance they can control it safely and well.”
“Every new student is a new challenge,” concludes Rick, who estimates he and his team have trained 250 to 300 significantly wounded American heroes to shoot again. “The greatest value of what we do is getting these great people excited again.”