As we remember our veterans on Memorial Day, I have some very distinct memories of our wounded warriors who proved the fighting spirit translates not only to the battlefield but to a ski slope and a dance floor.
It's hard to get a direct flight to Aspen. You usually have to connect through Denver or Salt Lake City or even Chicago. But how about a long lay over in Baghdad? Snowmass Village in Colorado hosted the 22nd annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic with almost 400 participants from 44 states ranging in age from a WWII vet of 85 to a 20 year old just back from Iraq.
Now I have great admiration for my fellow journalists who ventured out of the Green Zone in Iraq to get the story of the brave men and women in arms, but I was the first to sign up when they arrived for a week of skiing and bonding in what they call "Miracles on a Mountainside."
True to their indomitable spirit, these wounded warriors don't let something like paralysis or a missing leg or two prevent them from tearing up the mountain. I spent a day with a marine amputee in a mono-ski (a fiberglass shell in which you sit that's mounted on a ski) answering to a litany of, "Heather. Keep Up!" For some participants this was the first chance to experience speed and the wind in their face since their injury, and for others it was an opportunity to perfect their skiing to a professional level to become part of the US Disabled Ski Team.
Things are quickly put in perspective when you come off the slopes with the excuse that it was snowing and your goggles were fogged only to see the blind skier going up for another run. The key, as one of the corporate sponsors of the event told me, is "Focus on what they can do, not their inability." The fighting spirit doesn't end on the front line, as one team leader expressed, "We are here to kick each other in the ass when it's therapeutically necessary."
An Iraq veteran, a young man named Chris with enticing blue eyes, watched the action on the slopes from his wheelchair. "What are you gonna do out there?" I asked.
"I figured I'd be on my back making angels in the snow and writing 'Help me, I can't get up!'"
The next time I saw him he was skiing independently in a mono-ski despite a bruised shoulder and trip to the hospital the day before. After what these soldiers have known of pain, there's little a mountain can do to top it. When you hear them complain, "Oh my aching legs," it is just the amputees sharing their own inside joke. Pity-partiers need not apply here. There's even a Best Face Plant award given at the closing ceremonies where the winner in a neck brace smiled all the way to the podium.
While in truth there is nothing funny about the underlying tragedy, this ability to share a laugh with one another is essential to the healing process. There was a pregnant pause one night in a bar when someone told a vet who had spilled red wine on his white shirt, "Dude, it looks like you got shot," before the vet started to laugh and broke the ice for everyone else.
The winner of last year's Novice Alpine Skier award, 22 year old Shane Parsons, participated just six months after an EFP, explosively formed projectile, blew up his Humvee in Iraq leaving him a double leg amputee with brain trauma forcing him to learn to walk and read again at the same time. "It's a good overwhelming here," he says of the clinic, "There's no limitation to what you can do. One of my least favorite words is 'I Can't.'" Shane has garnered the attention of not only George W. Bush, whom he met twice, but television audiences when he made an appearance on Celebrity Apprentice. He presented Donald Trump with a military coin, one of the highest honors. In a rare moment, "He was speechless," Shane reports.
The importance of talking is a common thread among these younger vets. Shane explains, "You need to let it out. If you keep it in like I did for the longest time it eats you up inside really bad. After what I've been through it's cool to talk. As severe as my injury is I'm still capable. I'm still a soldier. I know what I can do and what I... am working up to doing. Anything I've started I've never quit."
As a handsome young man, Shane is looking forward to meeting the ladies, especially when he gets his prosthetic legs. "The doctor asked how tall I wanted to be. I used to be 5'10" so I told him, 'Hey I think I'd like to be 6'. Chicks dig tall guys.'" Interestingly Botox is a good friend of the wounded veteran, not for the wrinkles in his or her face but because it is effective in paralyzing the nerves that stimulate the sweat glands to keep prosthetics from slipping.
Love may not come walking in but it sure may come rolling in for these disabled vets. On the dance floor with John Corbett's band playing a super cute blonde on wheels had a slew of guys chasing her in their chairs. "She's amazing. She's gorgeous," is what you hear. "She's paralyzed," doesn't even make the list. And lest we think that white guys can't dance, you need to see the rhythmic wheelie moves these guys can make on the dance floor.
When one sweet young vet still sporting a head bandage donned me with beads during the Mardi Gras party, I have never been more sorry that I was wearing a sweaty sports bra and not fancy French lingerie because if anyone deserved a flash of the all-American tatas it was him.
But some of these young veterans need to watch out for a certain type of girl who wants to be embedded with them for the wrong reasons. Near one base in Texas, a vet warned that women lurk around preying upon the injured soldiers to seduce and marry them, then drain their bank accounts of any insurance money. Army chaplains have learned to question these quickie marriages and warn these vulnerable men to be watch out for each other.
The staffs of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) who sponsor the event are well aware of the mental as well as physical challenges, and if a vet doesn't show up for an appointed slot they'll give him or her a call to make sure they're doing okay. The compassionate and competent staff as well as a small civilian army of dedicated volunteers surround these wounded warriors like so much bubble wrap around fragile crystal but peel away when it is the injured vet's time to sparkle and shine, accomplishing physical feats they never thought possible.
For all they have been through these vets keep it buttoned up emotionally. Yet the house was almost brought down when 400 of them stood in a conference ballroom reciting the pledge of allegiance. I have never in my life experienced that act with as much emotion and meaning that rocked you to the very depth your soul consciousness. For the first time that week, I felt the tears flow. Luckily for me a vet on crutches handed me a napkin after the marines retired the flag from the room.
"Grab a beer?" he asked.
"It's on me," I said.