Wounded soldier training for Paralympics in Aspen
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” Neil Duncan insists he is one of the fortunate ones.
In the last two years alone, the 24-year-old Minnesota native has traveled the world.
He’s rafted the Grand Canyon, skied in the Italian Dolomites, gone halibut fishing off the coast of Alaska and viewed the summit of Mount McKinley from the window of a small plane.
He completed the New York City Marathon and even jogged with President Bush on the White House’s south lawn.
“Every single time I do something amazing, I think about where I could be and what I could be doing,” Duncan says. “Those are the kind of experiences that allow me to honestly say I’d never change a thing.”
Duncan is one of the newest members of Challenge Aspen’s competition team. Since moving to the area in October, he has been working tirelessly in the gym and on the hill with one goal in mind: To represent the United States in the 2010 Paralympic Games in Whistler, British Columbia.
Duncan admits it’s an ambitious objective. But so was learning to run again, spending each night propped up against the handrail in a hotel hallway, then biting the carpet in pain after taking yet another fall.
So was finding the strength to persevere when circumstances seemed desolate. So was surviving when it looked as though, in an instant, life had been taken away.
“I should’ve died, there’s no question about it,” Duncan says matter-of-factly. “I honestly couldn’t tell you how much blood I lost. I was almost done. I was very close to done, but I fought for it.”
He started skiing on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota where he learned the sport on the state’s diminutive slopes. In 2003, he and fellow army infantryman watched the war in Iraq beginning on a television at a Georgia bowling alley.
But Duncan’s story doesn’t begin in Aspen at the start of his latest pursuit. On Dec. 5, 2005, his platoon had just completed its third and final night monitoring for insurgent activity in the remote mountains of southern Afghanistan.
As the sun began to stretch its rays across the untamed landscape, they packed up their three trucks and headed downhill. Duncan, the team leader, was sitting in the right passenger’s seat of the final truck in the convoy. He was adjacent to the driver and in front of a gunner occupying the back row when his truck rolled over a land mine.
The mine exploded directly underneath Duncan. The force of the blow propelled the then 22-year-old forward, shattering his jaw and knocking out 10 of his bottom teeth.
But that was hardly his major concern. That became clear as the driver, who suffered only minor burns to his face, rifled through his lifesaver bag to find a tourniquet to wrap around Duncan’s demolished legs.
“Because of the head trauma, I was delirious and remember very little,” Duncan says. “I remember shadows and things like that, but no vivid memories. If you ask me, I’d say I was unconscious.”
He’d later learn that a Blackhawk helicopter picked him up, transported him first to a nearby medical facility then, once he was stabilized, to a military hospital in Kandahar.
Duncan left Kandahar without his legs ” his right leg was amputated above the knee and his left below the knee.
He was soon flown to Landstuhl, Germany. Five days after the ordeal, Duncan experienced his first conscious memory after arriving at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
It was here that he, still in a drug-induced fog, woke up in the intensive care unit to find his head restrained. Four screws stabilized his jaw, and his mouth was wired shut.
A feeding tube snaked through his nose and into his stomach. Oxygen flowed through a hole in his trachea. A cast covered his right arm from his fingertips to his shoulder and scores of IVs extended from both arms like tentacles.
“I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know the extent of it until that moment,,” Duncan says. “It was a real difficult awakening. You can imagine it messes with you.”
For two months, Duncan was immobilized. As Christmas and New Year’s passed, he struggled through the pain. The hallucinations, the surgeries ” nearly 60 in all ” took a toll. He couldn’t tell the difference between dream and reality.
“I’m not sure if I communicated it, I’m sure I didn’t, but in my mind I was telling my family to go away,” Duncan says. “I didn’t want them to see that happen to me.”
In February 2006, two months after leaving Afghanistan, Duncan was first fitted for his prosthetics. Just two weeks later, Duncan told his therapist Kyla he didn’t want to use his wheelchair to get on the plane to go target shooting in North Carolina.
Sure enough, when he boarded, Duncan was hobbling with the aid of crutches.
“That was huge for me,” he remembers. “I just didn’t think about where I would be in six months or two years, I was just thinking about today. I was happy with that.”
One month later, Duncan was back on the snow. He was approached by the Wounded Warriors Project, a group dedicated to assisting service members in their transition into civilian life. The man, who heard Duncan used to ski, invited him to Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.
Predictably, Duncan, who originally enlisted as an airborne paratrooper, took the leap. Three and a half months after being injured, he was “on this ice-cold mountain trying to fit myself into a monoski” for the first time.
“They took me on the bunny hill, pushed me down. I would try to turn and would fall over,” Duncan says. “We did that for about three hours. I was in so much pain that I had to call it.”
Duncan was determined, not disheartened. In the months that followed, he continued aggressive therapy and even took a trip to Italy to surprise some of his platoon mates.
He was also intent on learning to run. Kyla said he wasn’t ready, so Duncan spent each night after therapy working through the pain in his hotel hallway. Kyla had to notice the rug burns on his elbows. When Kyla finally agreed to take Duncan to the track, a smile covered his face as he took off running.
That was June, and in December, Duncan traveled to Breckenridge for the Ski Spectacular, the nation’s largest winter sports festivity for people with disabilities, and was eager to give monoskiing another try.
He surprised even himself with the progress he made in just one week.
“I was out there from the first lift until the end; I was intense on the whole thing,” Duncan remembers. “I saw some guys out there shredding, and it really motivated me to learn … I wasn’t skiing great by any means, but I progressed in a way I never could’ve imagined.”
By the following fall, he was moving to Aspen, with little more than a coat, some ski pants, and gloves. These days, the Basalt resident is on the snow nearly seven days each week. He says he’s ready to clear the next hurdle.
“I want to go all the way up, I want to do whatever I need to do,” Duncan said. “If that means skiing seven days a week or being in the gym, or watching videos, I’ll do whatever I need to make it on the U.S. team.”
Little more than two weeks ago, Duncan celebrated the two-year anniversary of his “Alive Day.” He took a moment to look back, to ponder his journey and to mull his future.
“I learned so much in the last two years ” I hope to God I never learn as much as I did the last two years,” Duncan says. “It’s been brutal going through this, but now I feel like I’m prepared for anything. I’m proud of myself, and I’m very lucky.”