Video: Challenging recovery

NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/11/2004 10:16:27 AM ET 2004-03-11T15:16:27

As soldiers, they went to war for their country, and lost their legs on the battlefields of Iraq. They've now returned home, as heroes and as amputees. But, whatever you do, don't refer to them as casualties.

"We lost a lot of soldiers, but there are a lot of us still living,” said Captain David Rozelle who lost the lower part of his leg when his Humvee ran over a land mine.

Now, Rozelle is wearing prosthesis and is standing at the foot of the mountain in Vail, Colo., along with seven other disabled veterans from the Walter Reid Medical Center. And, while some are just learning to walk again with new prosthetic legs, they've been invited to Vail to learn how to ski.

Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun lost both of his legs last November when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the back of his Humvee. "It almost took both my legs clean off,” he said. "They were barely hanging on.”

Calhoun is being fitted onto a snowboard by his instructor, and soon the pair is traveling ever so slowly down the hill. 

"How do you feel about falling down?" Calhoun was asked. "I ain’t worried about it at all,” he replied.

Calhoun, like his buddies, is preparing to climb a very personal mountain. And with a twist of irony, learning to ski independently is the first step.

"I was scared," he said. "I've got a son and I was afraid I wasn't ever going to be able to play with my son. You know, what's he going to think when he gets older and his dad doesn’t have legs?”

After one of his falls from the snowboard, Calhoun grinned at his instructor and said, "One of these days I'm going to have to stand up on my own!"

Facing challenges
Vail's Adaptive Program Coordinator Ruth Demuth says learning to ski is vital to the soldiers' rehabilitation, both mental and physical.

"Any kind of recreation, outdoors, being with people, learning something new, challenging yourself if another way, really opens the door to saying 'Hey! If I can do this, I can do anything!’”

Private First Class Phil Bauer was aboard a Chinook helicopter full of GI's headed for R and R when it was shot down on Nov. 2. His leg was trapped in the burning wreckage and by the time he was freed it had to be amputated. But, here he is too, standing on the side of a mountain, refusing to slow down.

"It feels awkward, you know. But I'll give it a shot,” said Bauer.

Learning a physical sport like skiing is momentous, and learning it without the use of either one or both of your legs can be terrifying.

Captain Rozelle, who one day wants to teach skiing to the disabled, is trying to master a "mono-ski." It's a chair-like device mounted on one ski, for those who have lost their legs or cannot use them. He and his instructor gingerly make their way down the hill, often ending with Rozelle crashed in the snow.

But, after two diligent days, he whoops it up, after finishing his first solo journey.

"I want to be an example for other amputees out here, struggling to figure it out,” said Rozelle.

He also wants to show the other skiers, the able ones, that his disability isn't going to slow him down.

"People don't really understand us now,” Rozelle added. "They're not used to amputees. I want to show all these kids out here on snowboards and stuff that this is an artificial leg, and it hasn’t changed me one bit."

To demonstrate how comfortable he's become, Rozelle also skis downhill on one ski, using a pair of 'outrigger' poles to help keep his balance as he hurtles through the powder.

Letter from Rumsfeld
In Vail, the soldiers' sacrifice for the country did not go unnoticed. An evening banquet was laid on in the local firehouse, with firefighters paying tribute, and dishing up homemade lasagna. Each soldier was then presented with a signed letter from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Did you get any blisters or anything?” Rozelle asked Phil Bauer. "Outside of the fact it's a little sore, I had fun!” he replied.

There is nothing artificial about the sense of achievement.

"You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself or you can say, 'This ain't going to slow me down and I'm gonna set some goals and accomplish them before a few months is up’...and that's what I’ve been doing." said a beaming Specialist Brandon Olson, who also lost a leg.

They left their homes and families to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom, only to return missing limbs.

But, on this mountain, each and every one is rediscovering a little personal freedom of their own.

"I'm feeling great! I'm lovin' life,” shouted Calhoun as he headed for the lift.

Kevin Tibbles is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Vail, Colorado.

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