Challenge Aspen camp gets soldiers active after injuries
The Aspen Times
It’s been a long road for Andrew Gonzales.
The 42-year-old Green Beret struggled with depression when he was first diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, learning to live with his new limits but also grappling with the disappointment of having to give up his dream job — one that many work for but only a few achieve.
Skiing with Challenge Aspen on Thursday, though, he was light and cheerful, even humorous. Learning to ski, as well as other activities he’s taken up at home in Tampa, Florida, have helped him shift his focus away from the things he can’t do to the things he can, he said.
“When you’re up there skiing, you forget that you’re hurt,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales has been participating this week in a Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities camp along with 12 other special-operations forces’ active-duty service members and veterans. The service members were learning how to slide down the mountain on all different kinds of equipment, from traditional skis and snowboards to three-track skis and mono-skis.
Gonzales’ injury means he can’t fall and hit his head, so for his first couple days on the hill, Challenge Aspen instructors skied on either side of him, all three holding onto a pole in front of them. By Thursday, he was skiing on his own, with instructor Bob Lemley by his side.
An adrenaline junkie who grew up in South Texas “swimming in the ocean and catching sharks,” Gonzales discovered his dream job when he joined the U.S. Army Special Forces. Skiing is a safe way for him to experience a thrill again, he said.
His wife, Cynthia, has become his primary caretaker, and with three daughters at home as well, she rarely has time for anything other than taking care of her family, she said. Being in Snowmass with Gonzales this week has given them “the freedom to just enjoy,” she said.
When she saw him ski on his own for the first time, it took her breath away.
“This is liberating,” she said.
Cynthia goes everywhere with her husband, but not everyone brings their spouses on these trips. To offer something that would not only benefit injured military personnel but strengthen their relationships with their families, Challenge Aspen started offering a couples’ retreat, the first of which was held last week, said John Klonowski, the camp’s director.
There will be 11 Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities camps this winter. The program has grown recently, successful in part because of a new application process that ensures that individuals who come are those who have a strong desire to participate in winter sports activities and are motivated to get something out of it.
“What I’ve tried to do with this program is create some ownership so they have some skin in the game,” Klonowski said. “These guys are really special.”
Cory Kapes, program coordinator for the Military Adaptive Sports Program of the United States Special Operations Command Care Coalition, which partnered with Challenge Aspen for this camp, said that the reason Challenge Aspen stands out above other programs is that its instructors are ready to adapt to their clients’ skill progression.
“They actually will assign individualized pros based on the needs of each one of our guys,” Kapes told The Aspen Times’ On The Hill host on Thursday. “They’re able to meet the needs and push every one of our guys a little outside of their comfort zone in order to light the fire for their recovery to get out and get physically active again.”
The mission of Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities is to help military personnel transition into civilian life, Klonowski said. It wasn’t easy for the Gonzaleses at first, but now Andrew, who’s been spending more time with his kids than he did while on multiple deployments, is also planning to go back to school after retiring from the Army.
“Now I’m looking forward to leading a normal life,” he said.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”