Heroes on the Hill
They may have suffered serious injuries in Iraq, but these soldiers continue to shine, both on and off the slopes, thanks to the Adaptive Sports Foundation at Windham.
Like any new skier, Jeffrey Adams faced certain frustrations when he first took to the slopes in 2005: maintaining his balance, dealing with new equipment and maneuvering the chair lift. But one of the most common complaints of burgeoning skiers didnt affect him. I dont have to worry about crossing my tips, he says.
Adams, a former army first lieutenant whose left leg completely disintegrated after his humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in November 2004, joined 24 other disabled Iraq vets for a three-day weekend of skiing, snowboarding and bonding, courtesy of the Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF), a nonprofit organization based at Windham Mountain in Greene County. The largest adaptive sports program on the East Coast, ASF has been providing services to disabled children and adults for 23 years. Their third annual support our troops event in January allowed the local community to show their appreciation; more importantly, it helped these wounded warriors realize their disabilities are not the end of the road. So many of them come to us right out of the hospital, so what they do here really sets the stage for the beginning of their recovery, says Karen Feldman, an ASF volunteer who has been teaching adaptive skiing for 10 years. In the beginning, many come in with fear in their eyes, they think, What the hell have I gotten myself into? But the vast majority of them come in at lunch with huge smiles on their faces. They realize what they can accomplish out on the slopes, and in the rest of their lives.
Retired U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant
This is the best rehab. You learn strength and balance, says Louisiana native Jeffrey Adams, who recently relocated to Alabama to design missile defense systems for Boeing. This is my third time skiing with all these guys; its just a great time. Its like a big reunion. Adams learned to ski using outriggers modified forearm crutches with a small ski tip and brake mounted to the base which provide extra balance and control for skiing, as well as for walking in flat areas. A release cord under the handles flips the lower portion of the outrigger up or down into a crutch or ski position.
Retired U.S. Army Major
While gearing up to hit the slopes at Windham, Smith chatted nonstop, often joking about his skiing ability, as well as his disability. What do I need a glove for? he asked when someone pointed out he had dropped it. But Smith admits he wasnt always so jovial. A rocket-propelled grenade tore through his hip and stomach while he was on patrol in Baghdad. His injuries were so severe he was put in a body bag before an alert nurse noticed he was still alive. Shrapnel severed his right arm, and he was in a coma for more than a month. After returning home, the Arkansan suffered from depression and bouts of anger. But returning to sports he enjoys rafting and basketball has helped him regain his life. Now I think, its a challenge, its not a problem.
Retired U.S. Army Sergeant
He skis, he snowboards, he plays basketball; in 2005 he cycled across the nation using a special handcycle that he pedaled with his arms. Despite having had both his legs amputated above the knee after his convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in November 2003, Calhoun a Tennessee native and the father of three kids, all under age five never seems to slow down. A national spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project (a nonprofit organization that supports severely injured soldiers), Calhoun lobbies for new laws and counsels the recently disabled. Being out here on the slopes really levels the playing field. Were all the same out here, says Calhoun. And coming back to Windham is like a big family reunion. I lost my legs, but I got 100 new friends to hang out with.
The mono-ski is probably the most difficult sit-down equipment because it requires the greatest balance and strength, says Feldman. Individuals sit in a molded seat, which is mounted on a single ski, and then use hand-held riggers for extra balance and control. Designed for people with double amputations, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida and MS, the device requires the use of the skiers arms. Those with injuries on the upper part of the spinal cord would be more likely to use a bi-ski.
But the great thing about the mono-ski is that the skier is independent, says Feldman. That is due, in part, to the ongoing improvements in equipment. Recent mono-ski updates include a handy switch that immediately raises the seat, allowing the skier to get onto the chair lift. He or she loads and unloads themselves and does not require assistance. Skiers can attain an incredibly high level of skill, she says.
In other words, advanced mono-skiers can be found racing over moguls, making their way through backcountry terrain and pretty much schussing and slaloming anywhere that nondisabled skiers do.
Retired U.S. Army Sergeant
When Jeremy Feldbusch emerged from a six-week coma after sustaining severe head injuries in Iraq in April 2003, the former mortar gunman with the Army Rangers realized he was blind. When he woke up, recalls his mother Charlene, he said, Mom, Im really going to miss jumping out of airplanes. I said, You will, and Ill go with you. Charlene is working on fulfilling that promise. You quickly realize life is short, so you just do it, she says.
APennsylvania native, Jeremy continues to do it all: he loves to fish and hunt (bagging a 200-pound boar with a spear in South Carolina last year), and has added the title of movie star to his resume. Home Front, a documentary about Jeremys return to civilian life by acclaimed director Richard Hankin, premiered at last years Tribeca Film Festival. When he skis, Feldbusch relies heavily on his instructor, who holds his hands to control Jeremys speed and help him turn. But as his other senses continue to develop more, says Feldman, hell be able to branch out on his own. Eventually, he will be able to go as fast as he wants, she says.
Retired U.S. Navy Petty Officer, 3rd Class
After shattering four vertebrae in his neck and injuring his back during an attack in the Philippines in 2002, Mix could have been honorably discharged from the Navy. He declined. One year later the father of three from Frazeysburg, Ohio, was in Iraq when a mortar attack reinjured his back, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. While he initially found skiing kind of hard, within a few hours he was hooked. Skiing gives me back my freedom, he says. For those few hours, when Im out there, I can totally forget about my disability.
Retired U.S. Army Specialist
Being the only female veteran at the AFS weekend didnt faze Green-Byrd, a Chicagoan who lost her left arm in Iraq in 2004. The former Notre Dame basketball star says that coping with her injury, while difficult many people didnt realize I was left-handed, she says has given her newfound confidence. Before, I was always worrying about whether I was good enough. Now I know I can do anything, says the former army gunner, who is studying to be a school guidance counselor. But my favorite thing about this weekend is seeing how supported we are by the community. I know a lot of people turned their backs on the Vietnam vets.
The first and third graders of the Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School in Windham sang Im Proud to be an American at a welcome luncheon for the soldiers. But this was just one example of the community pulling together to show their support. The Windham Knights of Columbus served up a buffet dinner complete with favorite comfort foods for the troops at the villages St. Theresas Church. And many dedicated volunteers from ASF as well as the Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled Sports USA, Windham Mountain, and the New York City Fire Department, all of which were partners in the event helped make the weekend a success. We probably had 75 to 90 volunteer instuctors working with the soliders, says Feldman. It costs approximately $1,500 to bring one veteran to Windham for three days, and ASF works throughout the year to raise the money. But Executive Director Cherisse Young thinks it is worth every penny. Their injuries are so new and theyre just learning how to get back into life. Getting on the slopes makes them realize they can do anything.
It wasn't all fun and games during the AFS weekend. Five soldiers successfully passed their Level 1 Adaptive Certification exam during their stay, the first group of Iraq vets to receive this certification from the Professional Ski Instructors of America. (Back row, L-R: Damion Jake Jacobs, Jeffrey Adams, Ed Salau. Front row: Mark Mix and Heath Calhoun.) The warriors each completed at least 50 hours of combined in-house training and actual on-hill teaching, and were required to prove their abilities in such areas as free skiing and turns. (There are no moguls at this level). These newly minted instructors (who are expected to be able to take non-skiers and help them eventually learn to make wedge turns) plan to give back by teaching other wounded soldiers around the country. Its hard work, says Feldman. They were out on the mountain all day, from nine to four. But they are just thrilled. During an emotional dinner, one of them said, Weve been carried, and now were ready to carry others."