Military vets confront past trauma through Challenge Aspen ski programs
The Aspen Times
ASPEN — Aaron Causey flew through the air with the greatest of ease while on his monoski at Aspen Mountain on Wednesday.
It was clear the lips and ledges on Pump House Hill and other ski trails didn’t intimidate him. He sought them out, then carved down the corduroy for another ride up the Ajax Express.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie, a thrill-seeker,” he said while taking a break for lunch at the Sundeck.
The retired U.S. Army veteran lost both legs above his knees while working on a bomb squad southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2011.
“This was the eighth time for me. I’ve been blown up eight times,” said the affable man from Birmingham, Alabama.
While rehabilitating at Walter Reed Hospital, one of his therapists urged him to try a ski trip. Causey had learned to snowboard in the Alps, but that was a decade earlier. But he loves the outdoors, he said, and decided there was no reason for his disability to keep him off the slopes. He was heavily medicated on his first trip, but as he healed, he took to the slopes.
“I got hooked. I loved it,” he said.
And he’s good. He’s skied as often as possible since that first time on the slopes, though he took the winter of 2013-14 off when his daughter was born.
He was on Aspen Mountain last week thanks to the Challenge Aspen Military Operations program, also known as CAMO.
Getting injured vets on the slopes
Challenge Aspen started a program in 2005 to serve the increasing number of newly injured soldiers returning from battle in the Middle East. It holds adaptive recreational programs in the winter and summer, and it’s been steadily growing.
In the 2014-15 season, CAMO was able to host 162 injured military personnel, their caregivers and/or spouses. That grew to 185 this winter, according to program director John Klonowski.
Causey and four colleagues participated in the 13th winter retreat for veterans this winter. CAMO also holds retreats for female veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as the direct result of sexual assault while serving. Klonowski said every veteran invited is facing some type of challenge, though it’s not always obvious. Many Vietnam War veterans weren’t diagnosed with PTSD until years after they served, he noted.
CAMO also offers couples’ retreats for injured veterans and their spouses. The divorce rate among injured veterans runs in excess of 80 percent, according to Klonowski.
He’s witnessed the benefit of getting the veterans out on the slopes and heard their testimonials.
“I just sit at my desk and bawl like a baby,” he said.
Veterans push their limits
Causey attended previous CAMO retreats, including the couples’ one with his wife. He wants to return as often as he can to the slopes of Aspen and Snowmass. He was making lap after lap Tuesday through Thursday with guide Jeff Pitts, an instructor for adaptive skiers with Challenge Aspen. Pitts didn’t coddle Causey. He kept nagging him to keep his head over his body instead of out over his outriggers, the special ski poles used by sit-skiers. Causey took it all in stride and raved about the experience.
“It’s almost like an intentional reset,” he said. “If you’re on the mountain pissed off, there’s something wrong.”
That sentiment was shared by Sergio Monzon, a powerful-looking former U.S. Marine. He was engaged in a firefight in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, when the enemy was dropping mortar fire on him and his colleagues. He was riddled with shrapnel and suffered extensive injuries. He lost partial sight, making trips to the slopes particularly challenging.
“Skiing didn’t come naturally,” he said, a Southern California native and San Diego resident. “It’s learning a trust issue with your guides.”
He started skiing in 2010, but, three years ago, “I really started pushing it and getting into race camps,” he said. He has participated at the Disabled American Veteran Winter Sports Clinic at Snowmass in prior years and has come to CAMO clinics before. In January, he was pushing so hard in a race at Aspen that he fell on one of the final gates, split his helmet and suffered a concussion.
That didn’t deter him from getting back on the slopes. He was working with longtime adaptive ski instructor and guide Bob Lemley at Aspen Mountain last week, trying to pick up that extra speed and feed that competitive edge.
Both Monzon and Causey said they have urged other veterans to attend the CAMO retreats.
“It’s a good, relaxing, fun time,” Causey said.
Elder veterans help out
Frank Anderson and George “Yogi” Lawrence, both from Montrose and U.S. Army veterans who served in Vietnam, also were skiing at the Aspen Advanced Retreat.
Both said they were in Aspen to help rather than be helped. They were skiing with guide Ryan Latham.
Anderson, who retired as a lieutenant colonel and commanded a battalion in Vietnam, said he attended the retreat to show support for the younger injured soldiers. He and Lawrence said they want to make sure returning soldiers are treated better than they were when they returned.
“When you came home from Vietnam, you just put your uniforms away,” Anderson said.
Lawrence, a past post commander at the Montrose Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he tries in various ways to support returning troops. “We don’t want to abandon these guys coming back,” he said.
Klonowski said Challenge Aspen regularly tries to get older veterans into the retreats as mentors. He said it also provides therapeutic value to them.
Attending CAMO retreats was like traveling through a time warp for Anderson. His father was sent by the Anaconda mining company to reopen the Smuggler, Molly Gibson and Durant mines in 1948. Anderson moved to Aspen as a young boy and his family rented the DRC Brown estate. He recalled the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration in 1949 and the FIS World Championships in 1950. He also reminisced about roaming the mines on Sundays when the miners weren’t working.
Witnessing the magic
Anderson’s military service and post-military life kept him from Aspen for years. It was an eye-opener to return for the CAMO retreats this winter. Anderson said he couldn’t say enough about Challenge Aspen’s efforts.
“The biggest thing that I see it doing is breaking the link from a horrific past to new activities,” he said. “It’s like magic. I’ve seen it work.
“The transformation that goes on saves lives. That’s the bottom line.”
CAMO is one of the few types of programs of its kind, and it hopes to expand its role as the premier adaptive recreational organization in the country for providing opportunities to disabled service members, according to its website. The program relies almost entirely on private donations.
Klonowski said he is concerned about mistrust of veterans’ aid groups after recent allegations of fiscal mismanagement and waste of funds by the national Wounded Warrior Project. He said he wants to assure people CAMO puts its donations to good use.
“In our case, 100 percent goes into programming,” he said.
More on CAMO can be found at https://challengeaspen.org/military.
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