Disabled U.S. veterans reach new heights, find hope at sports clinic in Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Disabled U.S. veterans reach new heights, find hope at sports clinic in Snowmass

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times

Feet Jensen believes he is a better version of himself today than he was more than 10 years ago before an explosion in Iraq nearly killed him and destroyed his legs.

Despite losing his limbs and suffering countless health complications since that life-changing moment in November 2008, the former Army combat medic chalks up the experience to being a blessing.

“I’ve learned so much, (and) I like this guy a whole lot better than that other guy,” Jensen, who legally changed his first name to Feet after the accident, said Monday at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village.

Along with amputating his legs from near the knee down, Jensen, 33, lost much of his upper-body strength, suffers severe nerve damage and has undergone 108 surgeries.

These are only the physical ramifications of Jensen’s time serving in Iraq; psychologically, he experiences many of the same mental-health issues that can haunt wartime veterans, including survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jensen doesn’t explicitly say so at first, but as he talks openly about life after the Army and survivor guilt, it becomes clear how this condition continues to push him to persevere, despite all odds.

Trying to understand, or at least somewhat come to terms with, the idea that he made it out of Iraq alive while “that incredibly loving, beautiful person just next to me did not,” Jensen said, forced him to look closer at his own existence.

In other words, he poses: “Why me? Why did I survive, and not him?”

Channeling these emotions to examine his life’s purpose, Jensen acknowledges how this experience challenges him to work toward his best self.

For Jensen, this means also being able to help others, as he believes strongly, “You cannot help another soul before you help yourself.”

Jensen knows he is in a unique position to inspire or motivate others; if nothing else, he said, because people may look to him “as someone who probably has it off a lot worse,” yet still lives to the fullest extent, and on most days, is genuinely happy.

As with many of the disabled veterans at the winter sports clinic, Jensen is being humble.

Watching him rely on the sheer strength of his shoulders and forearms — again, much of which he lost after the accident and complications in the operating room — to successfully power his body to the top of a climbing wall within a matter of seconds was something that onlookers will likely not soon, if ever, forget.

Perhaps equally as powerful at the bottom of the wall was the army of support encouraging Jensen, including clinic volunteers and instructors, fellow disabled veterans and his 11-year-old son, James.

Jensen, his wife of 14 years, Bethany and James are a climbing family.

They live in a home in the northern area of Utah, and climb together every day after school.

As James inches his way up the top half of the wall outside the Westin Snowmass — refusing to succumb as the terrain becomes increasingly difficult with each hold — it is little wonder where the 11-year-old learned such tenacity.

“I don’t let him quit,” Jensen said, with a smirk.

For Jensen, climbing “shows me that I am the only thing in my way.”

“If I can get out of my own way, I think that’s what’s going on,” Jensen said. “We’re the only ones holding ourselves back. Nobody here is telling us we can’t — in fact, (the instructors are) the ones encouraging us to try everything.”

The winter sports clinic, hosted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, is the largest rehabilitative program of its type in the world. Snowmass Village has been home to the seven-day clinic for 18 years in a row.

More than 400 disabled veterans are participating in the 2019 event, choosing from adaptive sports and activities such as kayaking, curling, fly-fishing, bowling, scuba diving, hockey, rock climbing, snowshoeing, sledding and, of course, skiing and snowboarding.

The clinic sees hundreds of returning veterans, who say the weeklong event is the highlight of their year, as well as its share of new-timers — including Samuel Johnson, who said he “is already hooked.”

“I am beyond, beyond words. I am totally blown away by all of this,” Johnson, also an ex-Army combat medic, said. “I love it. I’m hooked on skiing.”

Johnson struggled with drugs, alcohol, legal and credit problems from the time he left the Army in the late 1980s until recently — upon learning about the various programs in place to support veterans.

“The sports saved my life,” said Johnson, who suffered a major spinal cord injury. “I have another reason for living, besides (my wife).”

Johnson met his now-wife after turning his life around, with the help of veteran support organizations and adaptive sports, last July.

“She jumped in with both feet. She is more than my wife. She is my lifeline,” Johnson said. “She’s seen me at my worse and she was still there after. I’m the luckiest man in the world to have found her and made her my wife.”

Along with adaptive skiing, trying new sports and being a good husband, Johnson said he vows to seek and reach out to other disabled veterans to let them know about the “life-changing” opportunities that are available to them.

Basking in the sun posted up in his wheelchair at the bottom of the climbing wall, Johnson also doubled as cheerleader to his new friends, Jensen and James.

Recording Jensen’s first ascent up the wall while live commentating, Johnson quipped: “You can’t quit, Feet! I’m filming this on my Facebook.”