SNOWMASS VILLAGE — Lt. Jeffrey Adams skidded to a stop at the bottom of the Big Burn run, a smile on his sunscreen-lathered face as he shifted slightly on his outriggers, special ski poles given to one-legged skiers.
He was a long way from Iraq and the Army hospital where he spent weeks recovering from the bomb blast that cost him his left leg last fall.
“No one is shooting at you, trying to blow you up — all you can do is fall,” said Adams, 25, of Baton Rouge, La.
Still, for many of the more than 300 disabled veterans attending the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 19th Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic this month, the experience was intimidating.
“I was scared,” said Sgt. Andy Butterworth, 25, of Durham, N.C., who lost a leg in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq. “You got one good leg left. What if you break it?”
Master Sgt. Luis Rodriguez watched another vet clambering up a climbing wall and showed a reporter his “C-Leg,” which has a computer chip that helps the leg match his stride, give resistance as he sits down or a boost when he climbs stairs.
Rodriguez lost his leg when his medical platoon went to help some leukemia patients in Iraq. A bomb exploded next to the Humvee he was traveling in.
“That’s how I got blown up. That’s life,” said the 35-year-old from Fort Campbell, Ky.
Fifty-two of the combat veterans at the sports clinic were wounded in Iraq. One is a veteran of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.
Lt. Ed Salau, 34, of Havelock, N.C., remembers first hearing at Walter Reed Army Hospital about disabled skiing from VA recreation therapist Sandy Trombetta, the founder of the clinic. It was just a few days after Salau lost his leg.
“I looked around the room (at the other amputees) and I thought he must be smoking crack,” he said.
Trombetta said he is familiar with that sort of apprehension.
“Imagine going from being 10 feet tall and bulletproof to lying in bed surrounded by doctors and family and they all seem unhappy,” he said. “Even after 19 years I am blown away every second. This place is where dreams come true.”
Salau’s wife Terri said she had to hold back tears when she traveled with him to the clinic and took a snowmobile ride, with Ed driving.
“He’s an inspiration to me and the kids. We are so proud of him. He’s awesome,” she said. “Who’d have thought four-and-a-half months ago that we’d be snowmobiling?” she asked.
Butterworth, dubbed Mrs. Butterworth in Iraq because he brought a sewing machine to sew on unit patches and make repairs to uniforms, had some trouble snowboarding with his artificial leg. He switched back to skiing.
“It’s been a blast. I haven’t let anything stop me,” he said.
Added Salau: “Nobody’s different on the snow. I don’t ever want anybody looking at me and saying, poor guy. I never hear that on this mountain.”