From war zones to the Roaring Fork | SummitDaily.com

From war zones to the Roaring Fork

Josh Carney
jcarney@postindependent.com

The Roaring Fork Valley will soon have a new hero among its residents — and a heck of a snowboarder.

Former Marine Corps Sgt. Kirstie Ennis' life changed in an instant on June 23, 2012, during her second tour in Afghanistan.

On that day, Ennis embarked on a typical run in a CH-53D heavy transport helicopter through the mountains, running resupplies to units on the ground as well as extracting a unit that was under heavy fire.

"That day's flight mission was like many I had done in the past," Ennis, an aerial gunner, recalled in a telephone interview. "We were meant to do resupply flights to the top of Jalalabad and then drop off three Army medics before then heading en route to Musa Qala for an extraction of a unit that was kind of getting messed up by the Taliban."

Shortly after starting the mission, the chopper started taking fire from the ground in the Helmand Province and the nose of the helicopter started to go down. With crash imminent, Ennis' chopper rolled left, putting her parallel to the ground as the gunner on the left side of the helicopter.

"I just waited for impact and from there I was knocked out," Ennis said. "I woke up to people obviously screaming, and I was kind of in shock. I had some adrenaline flowing, but I couldn't feel much."

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She suffered a fist-sized gash on the side of her face, a shattered jaw, broken nose, fractures in her spine and a severe leg injury.

"I remember trying to pull myself up off the ground, but my leg collapsed, and I remember I started screaming," Ennis said. "I kept going in and out due to the shock. One of the medics we were transporting grabbed me and started to shake me to stay awake. …

"The left gun from the other helicopter ran over to me and told me not to close my eyes because I wouldn't open them again, so I remember staring at the cabin overhead light and kept telling myself, 'I'm not going to die without seeing my little sister.'"

It was the beginning of a journey that soon will lead her to a home in Ironbridge, south of Glenwood Springs, and high-level training on the slopes of Aspen.

REBOUNDING

Heavily decorated for her service, Ennis required an astounding 41 surgeries, including the amputation of her left leg above the knee in November 2015. Her final surgery came on Dec. 23, 2015.

She had started her recovery long before that — which put her on the mountains as a snowboarder early in 2013. The daughter of two Marines, Ennis had little experience with snow.

"I was laying in the hospital going stir-crazy and losing my mind, of course," she said. "But an organization called Disabled Sports USA had a winter sports program taking place, so they pushed me to come out and participate." She arrived in Breckenridge in 2013.

As an amputee who suffered brain trauma, Ennis caught quite a bit of flak from her doctors regarding snowboarding. She didn't listen.

"It was something that I couldn't do growing up," Ennis said. "Most of my time spent growing up was in Florida, but I needed something to gain confidence back and show myself that I could do this with my injuries. Snowboarding was the thing that allowed me to push myself forward in life and do things that people don't think I can do mentally or emotionally and keep defying those odds."

Her first time on the mountain learning a new sport as a disabled veteran, coincided with the training time for the U.S. Paralympic Team. Ennis was able to snowboard with Cristina Albert, one of the members of the team, who saw how quickly she was picking up the sport. That encounter led to Ennis getting introduced to the team's head coach.

"From that moment on it [snowboarding] was something that I really wanted to do," Ennis said. "The moment I came back to California, any time that I had free time I would load up in the car and go and snowboard on fake snow on Big Bear Mountain."

By catching the snowboarding bug, Ennis started to get more involved in recreational therapy trips, traveling to Sun Valley, Park City and other top snow resorts. She surprised people with how quickly she picked up the sport and then took on the challenge of racing a full season.

"I don't know how or why I picked it up so fast, but I'm extremely thankful that I was able to, and it's something that I absolutely fell in love with," Ennis said.

With that love of the sport, Ennis is now training for the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The International Paralympic Committee ranks Ennis eighth in the world in women's snowboard cross.

MOVING TO IRONBRIDGE

That training, along with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity through Building Homes for Heroes — an organization founded in 2006 that is committed to rebuilding lives and supporting men and women injured while serving the country during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — has brought Ennis to the Glenwood area.

Ennis will train in Aspen with a former U.S. Paralympic team coach, but due to the need to relocate to the area, Building Homes for Heroes will break ground on new home for Ennis this fall at the Ironbridge development. RM Construction will build the home.

Relocating to the area was a big step for Ennis, who loves the mountains and the tranquil setting.

Originally, Ennis approached Building Homes for Heroes mainly looking for help for temporary living situations. At the time, she was living half the year in California and the other half in Colorado to train. She also was working with Wounded Warriors Outdoors as an activities director, as well as Building Homes for Heroes.

During a Building Homes for Heroes event in which Advanced Auto Parts was to present a check of more than $2 million to the charity, the founder of the nonprofit surprised Ennis with a life-changing opportunity.

"I was on stage giving a speech before the presentation of the check," Ennis said. "And that's when the founder came up and said 'Kirstie, we bought you your land.' I just remember breaking down and crying and crying and crying."

She added, "I always wanted the Ironbridge property, but I didn't have the heart to tell them [Building Homes for Heroes] that that's what I wanted because I felt that it was a little too outlandish. So when they approached me and asked me about the Ironbridge community I was blown away by it."

Building Homes for Heroes has completed 46 houses for veterans, with another 14 — including Ennis' — awarded in 2016.

Ennis' home will be the first one in the area that Building Homes for Heroes has presented to a veteran.

"Despite all that she has been through, Sgt. Ennis continues to be an energetic and spirited young woman," said Kimberly Vesey, director of military relations with Building Homes for Heroes. "We're so pleased to help her pursue a future in snowboarding by providing her with a home near her training ground in Colorado."

Outside of snowboarding, Ennis remains active to this day and will attempt to become the first amputee to summit Mount Carstensz in Indonesia (elevation: 16,024 feet), one of the seven summits — the highest mountains on each continent. Along with her attempt at the summit, Ennis will also compete in an ironman race, as well as the 41st annual Marine Corps Marathon before focusing on snowboarding again full time.

But nothing will be as near and dear to her heart as the Building Homes for Heroes charity.

"They provide a serious stepping stone for wounded veterans," Ennis said. "I'm really involved in them now, obviously, as I'm doing quite a bit of public speaking for them, but it's one of the most rewarding things I've done because I'm paying it forward. It really provides people with a way to get back on their own two feet again."

FUNDRAISER

A fundraiser will be held at Ironbridge on Saturday, Oct. 1, to help raise money to build Ennis’ home. The ownership at Ironbridge is committed to matching up to $50,000 in donations for the project. Each public golf fee will mean $50 donated to Building Homes for Heroes. In addition, Ennis and representatives from the nonprofit will be on hand for a reception from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Residents and members of the community are encouraged to come and meet their new neighbor. There will also be a selection of items and gift certificates donated by area businesses available during a silent auction. To sign up for a tee time, call the Ironbridge Pro Shop at 970-384-0630. For other donations, make checks payable to: Building Homes for Heroes and note Sgt. Ennis in the memo line. Checks may be dropped off at Ironbridge or mailed directly to Building Homes for Heroes, 65 Roosevelt Ave., Suite 105, Valley Stream, NY 11581.