Veterans finding new mountains to conquer |

Veterans finding new mountains to conquer

Cpl. Casey Owens of Houston, Texas, cruises down Vail Mountain during a sit-ski lesson. He lost both legs to a land mine in Iraq in September 2004. Vail Daily photo/Bret Hartman.

With a smile and a cigarette between his lips, he moved from his wheelchair. Then, Navy Cpl. 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.”I 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.”As 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 2004. He married 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.”

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