It's a classic alpine evening—the sky turning from pale blue to pink to vibrant orange—as Melissa Stockwell steps outside into a light evening breeze on the porch at Vail's Adventure Ridge. "Girls, get out here! she calls back inside to the banquet room. "You'll die to see this sunset! Retired 1st Lt. Stockwell, 26, who became America's first female combat amputee when she lost her leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq two years ago, takes nothing for granted these days—certainly not beautiful mountain sunsets.
Stockwell is among 23 amputee soldiers who participated last spring in the third annual Vail Veterans Ski Weekend. The event was conceived and organized by Cheryl Jensen, wife of Vail Resorts senior executive Bill Jensen, after she visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where soldiers typically spend 6 to 12 months recovering from injuries. "That first visit was life-changing for me. I knew I had to get these brave young men and women on snow, but I didn't know how to do it, she says.
Then she met Army Major David Rozelle, who, one year after an anti-tank mine blew off his right foot in June 2003, became the first Iraq War amputee to return to combat. Exuberantly positive and an avid skier, Rozelle, 33, now oversees Walter Reed's Amputee Care Center. He rallied the troops and Jensen rallied Vail to host the first Ski Weekend in 2004. Only eight soldiers and their families attended, but the change it made in their recoveries was immediate, intense and lasting. Twenty-six-year-old Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun—who had lost both legs above the knee five months earlier—summed it up best in his parting words to Jensen: "I don't know why you did this for me, ma'am, but you changed my life.
Calhoun is not alone in those feelings. Skiing might be the single best therapeutic activity for injured vets, says Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA), a group that promotes sports participation by the disabled. First, gravity does much of the work, "mitigating a disability like in no other sport, Bauer says. Second, adaptive ski gear, always on the leading edge of medical technology, now accommodates disabilities as severe as partial quadriplegia. Lastly, skiing has a long tradition of adaptive instruction, which frequently allows disabled skiers to power down the mountain on their first day. "You often hear disabled skiers say that being on the slopes is the one time they feel whole again, Bauer says.
There's an increasing need for adaptive ski programs these days. The number of amputee soldiers is growing as battlefield care improves. "People are living today who never would have lived in any prior war, says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who attended the Vail event. "The corollary of that, obviously, is that you have a lot of people who are seriously wounded. What they are doing today, after they've been so severely wounded, is also new. That includes skiing mere months after being injured, as a way to accelerate recoveries and reclaim lives.
[NEXT]The Vail event provides each soldier and a companion with airfare, lodging, instruction, use of the latest adaptive gear, and activities every night, culminating in a firehouse dinner prepared and served by Vail's firefighters.
Occupational therapist Harvey Naranjo knows almost all of the amputees who have come through Walter Reed in recent years. Most are young and were extremely active before their injuries. "Engaging the patients in higher-level activity as soon as possible improves their rehabilitation, he says. As for skiing: "It's an adrenaline rush. You need that in life.
Naranjo helps determine who's ready for that boost, based on a vet's recovery rate, motivation and morale. Most are barely 20 years old and newly injured.
Shrapnel from a grenade tore a hunk out of Marine Joe Kapacziewski's hip, damaged his right arm and nearly destroyed his lower right leg. "He needed to turn a corner, says Naranjo, whoo didn't expect Kapacziewski to get on snow, but wanted him to see the possibilities.
The injured Marine does get on snow, as it turns out. At this year's event, Ruth DeMuth, director of Vail's Adaptive Ski School, helps him into the bucket of a sled-like device called a bi-ski and takes him to the summit. From there, Kapacziewski banks turns down Vail's Back Bowls, pain-free for the first time in nearly 6 months. Flying high, he beams: "This is the most fun I've had since my injury.
The skiing community fosters that fun nationwide. The Wounded Warrior Project, in partnership with DSUSA, funds other skiing events and private outings for vets throughout the country. "Our commitment is to provide them with recreational opportunities throughout their recovery, then provide it back in their community until it becomes a part of their lifestyle, Bauer says.
Jensen plans to keep the Vail event small, yet extend its reach with a second winter program, a summer option and new events for soldiers with brain and visual injuries. "It's one small way to thank the troops who have made such tremendous sacrifices for us, she says.
Rozelle predicts that more than a few veterans will look at the Colorado ski trip as a dividing line in their postwar lives: "They'll look back on the Vail weekend in 30 years as the moment that they turned their therapy around, focused less on healing and started focusing more on living.
For more information on the Vail Veterans Ski Weekend, contact vailveteransprogram.com.
To find out more about the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project and other similar projects, go to dsusa.org.