For wounded GIs, life goes on in Vail
By Veronica Whitney
Daily Staff Writer
It’s been three hours since Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun stepped on a snowboard for the first time. For three hours, Calhoun and his two instructors navigated the beginners area at Golden Peak in Vail.
Wearing two earrings and his two prosthetic legs, Calhoun is chewing gum and learning to do what he never imagined he could’ve after losing his legs in Iraq in November.
“It’s surprising, it didn’t take as much energy as I thought it would,” says Calhoun, who is still learning how to walk at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Learning how to snowboard Saturday became Calhoun’s latest mission and he is doing it with healthy obstinacy. By the end of the morning, the 24-year-old, boyish looking sergeant from Tennessee is close to making turns.
“He needs to check his legs, though,” says Heath’s wife, Tiffany Calhoun, who is also making her first turns on skis. “I’m concerned he will get some blisters on his legs and not be able to ski tomorrow. He is stubborn.”
This is the first time that Doug Morrell, an adaptive ski instructor for the Vail Ski and Snowboard School, is teaching snowboarding to a double amputee.
“He is doing much better than a lot of first-time snowboarders,” says Morrell, as Calhoun finishes yet another run. “He has incredible balance.”
‘This is progress’
On the other side of the lift, Sgt. Erick Castro, is making his first turns on skis with one leg. Castro lost his left leg in an ambush during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
And just four months after losing part of his right leg when the helicopter he was flying in was shot down, Pfc. Philip Bauer is also snowboarding and skiing.
Although he is still recovering from his injury at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bauer snowboarded for the first time Friday. Because he is ‘goofy’ – his right leg is the leading leg- he had to rely on his prosthetic leg, which he says “costs more than his house.”
“I’m three and a half months out of my amputation and I’m on a snowboard,” says Bauer. “This is progress. Having your butt kicked by physical therapists isn’t fun, but it is all for something.”
Sgt. Ryan Kelly is also skiing this weekend for the first time after he lost his right leg in an ambush in Iraq. As he skis down the hill, one couldn’t tell Kelly’s leg is missing below the knee. The trauma of his injury hasn’t changed his sense of humor, either.
“I’m just as bad as I was before,” he jokes after finishing a run and almost failing to do a hockey stop. “It’s all coming back. I don’t even have to think about it too much.”
Kelly, Calhoun, Castro and Bauer are among seven soldiers who came with their families to Vail this weekend and are sharing the slopes with the athletes competing in the U.S. Disabled Alpine Skiing Championship at Golden Peak. The soldiers are among 80 others who have lost limbs while serving in Iraq.
They all know about ambushes, land mines and improvised explosive devices, also known as IEDs. Not only have they suffered harrowing pain when they were injured, but some, such as Bauer, still remember dead colleagues. Bauer hasn’t forgotten fellow soldiers who perished in the Chinook Helicopter that fell 150 feet to the ground on Nov. 2.
“You don’t forget the eyes of the people who are dead,” says Bauer, who was among 15 who survived the crash that killed 18. Bauer also remembers the moment when his right leg was on fire after the helicopter crashed.
“Then, I said my peace,” says Bauer, who sustained third degree burns on 30 percent of his body. “But I had dropped out of the air and I knew I was going to make it.”
Despite their ordeal, when you first meet them, these men are like most. They smile, they drink beer, they make jokes, they hang out with their families. They tackle skiing and snowboarding as yet another challenge and, more than anything, as another opportunity. They want to live more than anything, they say.
“‘If I can do this, I can do anything’ – this is the motto of Disabled Sports USA,” says Capt. David Rozelle, 31, who organized the soldiers’ trip to Vail with the help of Cheryl Jensen and Disabled Sports USA. “I don’t want another soldier to miss the opportunity to enjoy what I’ve been able to enjoy.”
Rozelle, who now lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Kim, and their 7-month-old son, Forrest, lost his right foot when his Humvee drove over a tank mine last June.
Rozelle is the inspiring force for the rest of the group. A skier since he was three, Rozelle had a goal after he came back from Iraq: to be on skis before Christmas. And he did it. He skied Breckenridge using his prosthetic leg.
Since then, he has experimented. He skied with just one leg on Friday and on a mono-chair on Saturday.
“I want to try all the ways because I’d like to become an adaptive ski instructor,” Rozelle says. “Recovering is difficult, but it depends on the person. Some look at it as a challenge. Others have a difficult time to get off the couch.”
Road to recovery
In Rozelle’s case, his son Forrest helped with his recovery. Forrest was born just two weeks after the captain returned wounded to the United States .
“I was able to overcome, he gave me goals to live for,” Rozelle says.
Being able to ski again was one of Rozelle’s priorities. However, being able to carry his son for the first time was far more important for her husband, Kim Rozelle says.
“He waited two months to get his prothesis to carry his son,” she says. “He couldn’t do it before because he was using crutches.”
Soon after he was wounded, Rozelle says, he was concerned about his limitations.
“But there’s nothing I feel I can’t do,” he says. “I feel completely recovered.”
Jensen, one of the organizers of the soldiers’ trip to Vail, says she timed the trip to coincide with the U.S. Disabled Alpine Skiing Championships.
“We want them to visit with some of the U.S. disabled athletes to learn how they overcame their disability and went on to become world class skiers,” Jensen says.
Sara Berschet, who worked with the soldiers in the family assistance program at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, says the trip to Vail opens a lot of doors for the soldiers and will help them rebuild their lives.
“What inspired me was these guys’ attitudes,” says Berschet, who came to Vail to help with the soldiers’ trip. “The situation with a lot of these guys was that they were the only survivors of an attack. Though they lost a limb, they were happy about being alive.
“My heart goes out to them, who have literally given a piece of themselves,” she adds. “I want to do whatever I can to help them rebuild their lives and find purpose and meaning.”
Matt Perkins, a former U.S. Disabled Ski Team member who’s also helping with the soldiers’ trip to Vail, says hitting the slopes is shows the injured soldiers some of the options there are there for them.
“Ten years ago, there weren’t a lot of disabled athletes who were (role models),” he says. “Since then an amputee has summitted Everest and others have completed Ironman (triathlons.) There’s more visibility of disabled athletes now.”
For Chris Devlin-Young, a 42-year-old U.S. Disabled Ski Team member and world champion in giant slalom and slalom, skiing gave him back his life after a plane crash left him paralyzed at age 20.
“It gave me back the adrenaline and the control over my paralyzed body,” says Devlin-Young.
According to Ruth Demuth, the director of the adaptive program for the Vail Ski and Snowboard School, anything is possible in terms of teaching people with disabilities.
“It doesn’t matter what the disability is or what the ability is,” she says. “We can pretty much get everyone on the hill skiing. You need an open mind to adapt the skiing technique to meet each individual need.”
Rozelle says losing his foot has taught a lot about himself.
“I’ve learned how to push myself and not miss anything,” he says. “We lost a lot of soldiers, but there are a lot of us who are here.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.