On March 26, 2004, Kyle Moxley was preparing to set out on a mission with his U.S. Army infantry unit while serving in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As fate would have it, March 26 also is his daughter’s birthday, but Moxley said that particular afternoon would forever be remembered as the day of the “big boom.”
“I remember calling her up and wishing her a happy birthday, then we went out on a mission,” Moxley said. “The next thing I remember was waking up in Germany.”
While on patrol, Moxley’s unit was attacked and the young soldier sustained injuries to the right side of his body from an improvised explosive device.
Now 32, the Paonia native said he was an avid snowboarder prior to his 2003 deployment to Iraq. On Thursday, Jan. 23, he stepped into a snowboard for the first time in more than 10 years, but admitted there was a little pre-carving apprehension.
After being wounded, Moxley had to undergo 10 hours of surgery. He was told by doctors he’d never be able to hold a coffee cup with his right hand. He also has no feeling in his right leg.
“I never thought I would be able to get back up on a snowboard, but this is awesome, tiring, but awesome,” Moxley said Thursday while riding up the Peru Express chairlift at Keystone Resort. “It feels great to realize that this isn’t as challenging as I thought it was going to be.
“You never know what you can do until you try it. If you can’t do it, you learn from it and try again.”
The opportunity to step back into a snowboard after so much time away from the sport was made possible by the Keystone Adaptive Center and Keystone Adventures. Each year, members of Keystone’s adaptive teaching program host SnoFest Military Winter Sports Extravaganza.
The event, now in its sixth year and hosted in conjunction with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, treats disabled veterans to a three-day, all-expense-paid trip to Keystone, where participants receive free lessons, lodging and meals, and participate in a variety of on-snow activities.
Kendall Oakleaf, program director for the Keystone Adaptive Center, said the resort is hosting 15 disabled vets representing all four branches of the U.S. armed services during this year’s SnoFest, which kicked off Thursday. The veterans came from all over the West, including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas.
SnoFest is one of Oakleaf’s favorite events, not simply because it’s a rewarding opportunity for her and the 25 adaptive instructors and volunteers who participate every year, but also because she can see how the veterans develop or renew their love for skiing and snowboarding.
“I love seeing people happy, smiling and having fun,” she said. “Take Kyle, who seemed a little apprehensive about getting on a snowboard, but by this afternoon he was talking, telling jokes and learning to jump and spin on his board.”
The event also provides veterans of similar backgrounds an opportunity to hang out socially and swap stories. The adaptive instructors also reap the benefit of hearing those tales, Oakleaf said.
Andrew Chavez, 34, of Santa Fe, is one of those veterans who had an interesting story to share. Like Moxley, Chavez is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A graduate of West Point, Chavez served as a field artillery captain in the Army. His unit was one of several that occupied Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace in Baghdad.
Although he wouldn’t go into much detail, he said many of the stories and rumors that filtered back to the states about Hussein’s gold-plated bathroom are true.
But Chavez also was a wartime victim and today suffers from traumatic brain injury. He was wounded when a building his unit was occupying was attacked by an enemy equipped with rocket-propelled grenades. The building collapsed while Chavez was still inside.
However, Chavez refuses to let his injuries slow him down. He and his brother, Steve, travel to adaptive events all over the country and in the last five years Chavez has been horseback riding, surfing, kayaking and scuba diving, in addition to an annual ski trip or two.
“If there’s an adaptive program out there, we’ve done it,” Steve said. “We like to think of these things as life therapy.
“For these guys, it’s really important to enjoy the outdoors and stay active, but getting to interact with people is a huge benefit.”