Vets: ‘New chapter of our lives’
VAIL – Two years ago, under a blue sky on Vail Mountain, Chris Fesmire took his first ski lesson as a double amputee.
It was just months after a land mine exploded under his Humvee in Iraq, mangling his legs.On Friday, another bluebird day, Fesmire was back on Vail Mountain, ripping up black diamonds, stopping to wait for his ski companions – people with legs – to catch up with him.Fesmire was skiing for the third year in the Vail Veterans Program, which this year has brought 26 Iraq war veterans, all amputees, to Vail for three days of skiing.The program helps the vets – many of whom are uncertain about life after their injuries – understand they can accomplish a lot, Fesmire said.”It really is the best kind of therapy,” he said. “It teaches you how to live. It helps you adapt to your new life, whatever it may be.”
In the last two years, Fesmire, 28, has retired from the Marines, and he and his wife, Willow, have moved to Colorado. They came here because of the mountain lifestyle and the sense of community, he said. They live in Nederland and are building a home in Park County.Fesmire now owns his own monoski. He has about 30 days this year so far, skiing a lot at nearby Eldora Mountain.Skiing gives him freedom, he said.”Can I quote Waylon Jennings?” he said. “‘Doers and thinkers say moving is the closest thing to being free.’ … Flying down the mountain, whizzing past everyone.”He plans to get certified as an adaptive instructor next season and work at Breckenridge teaching others to use adaptive skiing equipment.
Fesmire, a Bucks County, Pa., native, joined the Marines when he was 19 and served for four years.
“I wanted to get out and see the world and have some adventures,” he said.After being discharged, he lived near Boulder for a while, but was recalled to serve in Kuwait in 2003.”Getting called back to the Marine Corps was kind of like going home,” he said.Two of Fesmire’s brothers are in the Army, and they have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After Kuwait, Fesmire volunteered for another tour, this time in Iraq. He was stationed in Al Anbar province, near the Syrian border.
One day, he and his team were coming back to base after guarding some communications equipment in the desert. Fesmire was riding in the front passenger seat of a Humvee and was lighting a cigarette when he saw some black smoke in front of him.”There was just enough time to think, ‘That’s odd,'” he said.A landmine exploded under Fesmire. After going unconscious for a moment, he tried to get out of the Humvee.”I saw my legs go 180 degrees in the wrong direction,” he said. “I knew I lost my legs as soon as I got out of the Humvee.”His first thought was concern for his fellow soldiers but none of them were injured, he said.He was airlifted back to the base in minutes, and was taken to Baghdad, then Germany and then Washington.
Fesmire was skiing Friday with his instructor, Mike Miltner, and Jim Mides, a Texas man who donated the airfare for the veterans to come to Vail. Wearing aviator glasses and a “Life is good” sticker on his helmet, Fesmire zoomed down Riva Ridge and then headed up to Game Creek Bowl for a run on Dealer’s Choice.”If I can ski some of this crazy terrain out here, I can do a lot more if I put my mind to it,” he said.Fesmire said he tries to stay out of the politics of the war, and he supports the troops, especially with his brothers still serving in the Army. But he questioned the need for the war. More than 20,000 Americans have died or been hurt in the Iraq war.”I don’t think it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s 20,000 mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, boyfriends. It’s a lot of heartache out there because of this war.”A pullout would mean chaos there, but staying would mean more deaths of Americans and Iraqis, he said.”I don’t think there’s an end in sight,” he saidIn Nederland, Fesmire is reading a lot, playing the mandolin and painting. The Fesmires’ new home near Buena Vista should be completed this summer. The couple continues to adjust to life now.”My wife and I have opened a whole new chapter of our lives,” he said.The retired sergeant didn’t want to call himself a hero.”I just wanted to help,” he said.Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or email@example.com.