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Miracles on a mountainside

Paul Andersen

The video camera whirred as the three veterans from Iraq stood on the ski run in the rain.

These young men, all in their mid-20s, share a rare commonalty. All three lost a leg in the Iraq War – at the same time, in the same place, in the same violent manner.

These men and several hundred other vets from across the country and from several wars were gathered in Snowmass last week for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, five days of skiing, rock climbing, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, scuba diving, ice hockey and other events.

This kind of recreational therapy is said to be one of the most important experiences in their lives, lives wrought with dramatic challenges like those faced by the three amputees standing on that ski run in a mist of clouds and rain.

Some of the vets walked on prosthetic legs. Others were missing arms, had vision deficits, suffered from traumatic head injuries or were in varying stages of paralysis. Some were quadriplegics who could move only their heads.

I interviewed the three leg amputees for a television documentary, and the unfolding of their story was a tragic and compelling moment. It was as if the world stopped for the telling of it.

The men were in Iraq in a fighting vehicle with a top-mounted machine gun. They began taking fire, rocket-propelled grenades whizzing at them. One grenade hit their vehicle and penetrated the metal shell.

“That’s when the shit hit the fan,” said one of the soldiers, who stood on his snowboard looking like any other young rider, but whose life changed forever in that instant. The grenade did not go off or the three would have been killed. Instead, it severed a leg from each man.

“We collapsed in the bottom of that vehicle and just looked at each other,” said one of the soldiers, who stood on one ski, his empty pant leg pinned up. “Our eyes were as big as saucers.”

It was told how one of the soldiers picked up his severed leg and pressed it against his bleeding stub to stanch the flow. “That was the last good use of my leg,” he said. Because of the fast work of medics, the men were saved. Their limbs were not.

Last week, they were in Snowmass skiing, snowboarding, kidding with one another. Their reunion was a bittersweet reminder of their mutual loss. A bond like theirs is difficult to imagine, harder to reconcile.

“Programs like this give us a reason to go on,” explained a quadriplegic participant, who said that many disabled vets are not so fortunate. Instead of a sports clinic, they find solace in a bottle, with drugs, through the opiate of television, behind the cloak of isolation.

Perhaps 10 percent of the vets in the Snowmass clinic were injured in battle – some from the hazy past of Vietnam. Sadly, more combat vets are joining their ranks every day from Iraq, which is what makes this clinic so important, so vital, so current.

“We didn’t have programs like this coming out of Vietnam,” said a gray-haired vet. “When I came back with a broken back from parachuting out of my plane, I had to wait in line for rehab. Afterwards, I was left on my own.”

Not any more. The Winter Sports Clinic, originated by Sandy Trombetta of Grand Junction, answers the needs of disabled vets by giving them activities, and an even more important social connection.

“It’s about much more than the skiing,” said Trombetta. “We’re not here to make better skiers. We’re here to make better people. We give them an opportunity to be the best they can be, physically and psychologically.”

As we wrapped up the interview and the three amputees worked their way down the slushy ski run, it was a tribute to hope and the strength of the human spirit. The real tragedy is that programs like this are fed by ever growing lists of participants from ever growing fields of battle.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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