Warriors on the snow
February 22, 2007
SNOWMASS “Where are your legs?” asks a stunned 5-year-old boy as Heath Calhoun skis past him in the lift line at Snowmass.”They’re gone,” answers the 27-year-old Iraq war veteran.”Are you sure they’re gone?” the boy asks, smiling and wrinkling his nose in confusion.”There’s nowhere to put ’em,” Calhoun says, smiling back and indicating the space around him. “Actually I have lots of legs. I just have to put them on and take them off again.”The boy cocks his head in wonder.It’s been more than three years since Calhoun lost his legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq and he’s neither shocked nor ashamed by the boy’s questions.”Adults stare, children ask questions,” Calhoun said later.”Why can’t you ski standing up?” one of the kids asks Calhoun and his fellow sit-skiers, Mark Mix and Casey Owens, who stop to give the kids a closer look at their specially-built monoskis.”Does it hurt?” another boy asks. “Do you go ski everywhere? What does it look like where the leg is missing? Can you move your legs at all?” the children ask.Mix explains that he has legs but they don’t work and Owens shows the boys that he still has part of one leg and can still bend one knee.”How did it happen?” one boy asks Calhoun.”It’s a long story. I don’t think your mama and daddy would want me to tell it to you,” he answers.”And you are smiling,” the boy says incredulously, matching grin for grin. “You have no legs and you’re smiling.”
The men are the first three members of Challenge Aspen’s Veterans Paralympic Performance Training Program at Snowmass, a new initiative the U.S. Paralympic Committee and the Veteran’s Administration recently dubbed the primary center for newly injured veterans.Houston Cowan and Amanda Boxtel started Challenge Aspen in 1995 to give disabled athletes new options, and the nonprofit has supported many events for disabled veterans, including summer rock-climbing schools, a recent rafting trip down the Grand Canyon and an annual winter sports clinic that attracts up to 400 veterans to Snowmass each spring.In 2006, Cowan hired Kevin Jardine, a Carbondale native and former coach of the U.S. Paralympic Team, to lead a new training plan to put disabled veterans in the starting gate and on the podium for World Cup and Paralympic events in coming years.”There are a lot of programs for disabled people to get into skiing as part of rehab,” Jardine said. But the new initiative gives newly injured veterans from Iraq the opportunity to compete at the most elite levels of the sport.Aspen’s newest arrival”I wanted to do something to be proud of,” said 25-year-old Casey Owens. High school wasn’t a challenge, and college only placed Owens in deep debt. So in the wake of September 11, 2001, the Houston native joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
“If you didn’t hate your first year, they’re not doing their jobs,” Owens said of his commanding officers at boot camp and infantry school. And just 10 days after his training ended, he was stationed in Iraq first as a “boot,” or junior troop, on his first tour, then as a corporal in charge of 30 to 40 people.He enjoyed training and leading men on mountain missions. The anti-tank mine explosion in September 2004 that nearly took his life made him angry, he said, not out of self-pity over losing his legs, but because he didn’t want to leave his troops.”I woke a month later in Bethesda, both of my legs gone,” he said. Shrapnel had collapsed his lungs, and Owens faced months of complications. “They didn’t think I’d make it.”But it wasn’t long before he joined a group of soldiers from Walter Reed Hospital for a ski day in Wintergreen, Va. On a later trip to Vail he skied with Sarah Wills, a U.S. Paralympic gold medalist. He was hooked.”It separates you from your disability,” Owens said of skiing. “I feel kind of normal again.”After spending his last three birthdays in hospitals and an operation as recent as October, Owens enjoys skiing every day in the valley. He likes to catch big air and ski the steeps, and hopes to ski Highlands Bowl this season. “I know I can do it. It’s just getting up there.”But his true goal: “I’d like to join the U.S. team and make the Olympics,” he said.
“They’re definitely high-level skiers, and we’re trying to get them to the next level,” said coach Jardine of his new recruits.A husband and father of two, Jardine took the job at Challenge Aspen as a way to get off the constant treadmill of traveling with his Paralympic team. And the quick-to-smile coach brings his own competitive spirit to his guys each morning in the gym and on the hill.”They’re used to a routine,” he said of the highly motivated military men. “I’m expecting them to approach this as their job. I’m not training them to try to compete against the U.S. team, I’m trying to train them to beat the U.S. team.”Competition is tight. Disabled competitors used to compete in separate disciplines based on specific disabilities – varying levels of paralysis or visual impairment, for example. But a new, simplified three-category system pits skiers with similar disabilities – visually impaired skiers, sit-skiers and standing skiers – in broader categories. The result is fewer athletes on the podium, Jardine said.”It’s not just a hobby or a sport … it’s got to be their lifestyle,” Jardine said.The veteran coach said that all newly injured people have some level of stress, trauma and a period of acceptance. But of the injuries, he said, “They have to come to terms with it.”These men who face logistical obstacles everywhere they go seem to grow wings on the hill.
“Skiing was the first thing that gave me my legs back,” Calhoun said. Other activities require using handrails or steps, he said, but there’s nothing to stop him or slow him down on the slopes.Calhoun walks on “C-Legs,” sophisticated prosthetics that provide a full range of motion. It has been more than seven months since he’s used a wheelchair, he said.”I’d always loved the military,” he said. Like Owens, Calhoun was frustrated by the expense of college, and joined the Army at age 20.It grated him when his platoon was called to Iraq while he was away on special training, and he admits he was pulled in two directions: his duty to a new wife and young child, and his duty to eight soldiers overseas.But the then-sergeant finally left Fort Campbell in Kentucky to join his fellow infantrymen in Iraq in July 2003, and called his four months in Iraq “uneventful.””I never fired my rifle,” Calhoun said, and despite some scuffles and some close mortar rounds, his mission mostly involved standing guard.But on one of those routine guard posts Nov. 7, 2003, at an Iraqi bank where locals were exchanging old currency (with Saddam Hussein’s image) for new, he was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. He has just three memories from there: calling for a medic, having painful tourniquets tied around his legs, then waking up after surgery.”I was determined not to stay in a wheelchair all my life,” Calhoun said, and it wasn’t long before Calhoun made his first trip to Vail. When he tried his first mono-ski, he was hooked, and signed up for every sit-ski clinic he could. The father of three children under five came to Snowmass Village earlier this month on a one-way ticket. His wife and two of the kids came along to scope things out and do a little house-hunting, but he plans to stay the season, crashing on the floor of the Burlingame apartment where his fellow racers live.”I’m here until my wife throws a fit,” he said.
Mono-skis, or sit-skis, are cutting-edge machines with hydraulic shocks supporting a cushioned, molded seat. The shock/seat combination fits into a standard ski binding on a single ski. Riders use outriggers fashioned like forearm crutches with retractable ski attachments for stability.Skis and “buckets” are made by a handful of small manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe. A typical set-up costs about $3,000, or more for racing gear.Busy adapting their gear in the Challenge Aspen equipment room, the men exchanged friendly insults like lifelong friends. Nothing is sacred. They joke about one another’s disabilities, using terms like “gimp” and “cripple,” and there is no room for self-pity.”You’ve got to learn to deal with it,” said Mark Mix about his disability. “It’s life.”A former construction worker, Mix, 36, felt he wasn’t “getting anywhere,” so in February 2001 the Ohio native and father of three joined the military at age 29.”I joined to serve my country and for a better life for me and my family,” Mix said. He was nominated to the Sea Bees, an elite special forces division of Navy combat engineers who work in advance of Marine operations.Following 9/11, Mix’s battalion went to Baslin, Phillippines, on a mission against Abu Sayyaf, a suspected Muslim terrorist group. A bullet in that conflict shattered four vertebrae in Mix’s neck, and though paralyzed from the neck down, he was evacuated to the U.S., had extensive surgery, and recovered only to return to the fray in Iraq.”I felt that I wasn’t done,” Mix said.But the petty officer third class was only in the Iraq theater for 33 days when a mortar attack outside Baghdad paralyzed him from the waist down.Like Owens, his first feeling was frustration. “I didn’t fulfill my mission,” Mix said. “If there was a way for me to go back, I would,” he said.Before his accident he remembers thinking skiing ridiculous, but six months after his injury “they threw me on the mountain,” he said. And today they have to pry the ski out of his hands, he said.”I enjoy going fast,” Mix said. And when he had a chance to come to Aspen to train with Jardine, what he called “an answer-to-prayer thing,” his wife told him not to pass it up. He jumped.”I’m not going to take food off my kid’s plates to do this,” Mix said, but he’ll stay through the season to train.”We’re dealing with a lot,” Mix said of disabled veterans. “But when I go down the mountain, I forget all of my disability. I totally forget I can’t walk.”
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Mix believes that making the Paralympic team is a way to fulfill his mission to his country.”I gave up the use of my legs for a reason,” he said, and his time in the military and in Iraq “made a little bit of a change.”When he sees children who are free from fear – like the group of kids in the lift line that day – he knows it is “because of what we and other vets have done. I hope people remember that.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.