Courage on the slopes |

Courage on the slopes

Veronica Whitney
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyCpl. Casey Owens flies down a run Friday on Vail Mountain during a sit-ski lesson with Paralympic gold medalist and Vail ski instructor Sarah Will. Owens was part of a group of 18 veterans visiting Vail for the weekend.

VAIL – With a smile and a cigarette between his lips, he moved from his wheelchair. Then, U.S. Marine Christopher Fesmire transferred his damaged body to the mono-ski that would take him down the slopes. These days, Fesmire is learning to walk again and on Friday, he was learning how to ski. Fesmire, 27, who lost his two legs in Iraq when a mine blew up the Humvee he was in, said there’s nothing he won’t be able to do in the future.”A lot of people look at me now as a cripple. I resent that,” said Fesmire. “I’m limited, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do everything I want to do. A couple years from now, I’m going to be running around playing soccer, snowboarding, maybe surfing again. You aren’t going to be able to tell I lost my legs.Before getting ready to hit the slopes, Fesmire, who’s from San Clemente, Calif., hung out at Golden Peak with former Paralympic gold medalist and Edwards resident Sarah Will, who was going to work with Cpl. Casey Owens – also a double amputee.”It’s really good when we can learn from each other,” Will said while explaining to Fesmire how he would be strapped by his waist to the mono-ski. “Sometimes, the double ‘amps’ will run into a problem where they aren’t getting enough forward pressure because they don’t have their legs out in front of them. There’s a possibility of using weight bags,” Will said.But Fesmire didn’t give it a second thought. He changed his hand knitted wool hat for a ski helmet and goggles and with his cigarette still between his lips, headed to his first ski lesson since losing his legs. The accident also left shrapnel in his face.Vail’s Cheryl Jensen visited Fesmire his first day at Walter Reed Army Hospital.” had been there two minutes in my bed when these people came around and they said, ‘You want to go to Vail for the weekend?’ I was like, ‘Yeah’. Ever since then, I’ve been looking forward to this,” he said. Fesmire and 17 other troops injured in Iraq are in Vail this weekend to participate in the second annual Vail Veteran’s Ski Weekend. These soldiers are all recuperating from the loss of a limb and are being treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Last year, eight soldiers participated in the program sponsored by Vail Resorts, which provided lift tickets, equipment and instruction from the Vail Adaptive Ski School. This is the second year that Army Capt. David Rozelle, who lost his right foot fighting in Iraq, participated in the program. This time, he’s helping the other soldiers out.”This gives them the confidence to overcome,” said Rozelle, who on Tuesday will become the first amputee troop to go back to Iraq. “To us, it seems like 200 meters of snow. To them, it’s an incredible challenge.”Days in IraqAs with many soldiers, Fesmire’s story of commitment to the United States goes back many years before his injury.Fesmire joined the Marine Corps in 1998 and after two deployments with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit out of Okinawa, Japan, he was honorably discharged in 2002. He then returned to Philadelphia and enrolled at Temple University. But in March of 2003 he was involuntarily reactivated as a casualty replacement and assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group. He was then deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and discharged again in March of 2004. He was married to his wife, Willow, upon discharge.”I had two brothers in Iraq,” Fesmire said. “And I saw the faces of all those kids there, and when they called me to see if I wanted to volunteer, I talked to my new wife and she said I should do what I had to do.”He was attached to 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment and deployed to Iraq in August. Sitting under the Colorado blue sky, Fesmire recalled the day he got injured. On a security patrol in Al Qaim – on the Syrian border – the Humvee Fesmire was in got hit by a mine.

“I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “I had just lit a cigarette and I noticed a big cloud of black smoke and the next thing I knew I woke up and the driver was laying across me and I tried to stand up. “I didn’t get very far. I rolled out of the Humvee like a rag doll. At that point I knew I was injured and that I wasn’t going to have my legs anymore. I was amazed at how calm I was. I was a newlywed. I didn’t want to die.”But Iraq was boring most of the time, Fesmire said.”There’s a lot of boredom with moments of extreme excitement,” he added.”The news gives you the worst of what happens over there,” he added. “They don’t tell you of the community projects we do, such as building schools, helping farmers learn how to irrigate their land. Things that we take for granted here – handing in soccer balls.”Most Iraqi people I talked to were happy we were there,” he said. “They didn’t mind us being there.”Despite his injury, Fesmire said he never regret regretted going back to Iraq.”I still considered it as my honor,” he said. “I’ m a patriot. If anything it’s given me more love for my country.” Music, skiing and teaching Fesmire still wears his hair military crew style. “I’m still on active duty,” he said.

Upon this release from active duty, he said, he plans to pick up his education studying English with the aim of teaching at a university. “Getting my legs blown off gave me an opportunity to concentrate on things I want to do,” said Fesmire, who will get a full disability pension and a grant from the government to buy a house and a car.But learning how to walk is now his goal, he said, taking a break from skiing.”It’s an ongoing learning process,” he said with a big smile as he waited to load the ski lift again. “Life is education. You just can’t give up. I’m glad I’m doing this. “Learning to walk will be a longer and harder process than anything I’ve ever done before,” he added. “I feel I’ll be a better person in the long run from the discipline that it takes to do it.”While he learns to walk and ski again, Fesmire has started taking mandolin lessons.”I’m getting better at it,” he said with a smile and another cigarette between his lips. “I can draw a parallel line between all of them. “The challenge now is to find joy in the simple things,” he added. “Limitations are just obstacles to be overcome.”Staff Writer Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or Vail, Colorado

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