Iraq veterans slide into camaraderie on the slopes |

Iraq veterans slide into camaraderie on the slopes

Robert Weller
AP PhotoSgt. Brandon Erickson, left, and ski coach A.K. Watson, right, watch as Capt. David Rozelle stops during a racing clinic in Breckenridge on Tuesday.

BRECKENRIDGE – Army Capt. David Rozelle breezed down the slopes with ease, an expert skier in his element on a cold day at this Colorado resort. He doesn’t run into trouble until the skiing is over.

The 31-year-old soldier from Fort Carson lost his right foot in a land mine explosion in Iraq in June. An artificial foot lets him ski, a blessed escape from his limp and his crutches, at least for a little while.

He hates the loss of freedom when the skis come off: “”It sucks at the bottom of the hill.”

Hundreds of disabled veterans, including a handful from the war in Iraq, were at Breckenridge this week to learn how to ski and snowboard at an event run by Disabled Sports USA. On Tuesday, they took advantage of fresh snow as they hit the slopes with comrades familiar with the horrors of war.

Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA and a Vietnam amputee, has seen wounded veterans take to the slopes many times before but it never fails to inspire him.

“”Suddenly people who feel they are in slow motion suddenly are passing other people going down the hill,” he said.

“”It is a great confidence builder; they go from thinking of all the things they can’t do to all the things they can.”

Skiing may seem an unlikely sport for the disabled because it can be difficult to learn, even for good athletes. But doctors have found that it relieves depression, and equipment has been adapted for almost any handicap.

Nine soldiers wounded in Iraq were among 600 people who attended this year’s event. Among them was Sgt. Brandon Erickson, a 22-year-old soldier who lost an arm.

Erickson said he doesn’t stand out when he skis, the way he does back home. He left his “”$100,000 state-of-the-art” right arm behind for Tuesday’s lesson.

“”I didn’t need it anyway since I couldn’t really hold a ski pole with it,” he said.

Like Rozelle, Erickson had skied before his injury and couldn’t wait to get back on the slopes. Unlike Rozelle, he is retiring and is attending the University of North Dakota.

He hopes to get a master’s degree and perhaps work on getting better equipment for enlisted personnel.

Sitting on a chairlift, Rozelle and Erickson said they couldn’t recall details of the attacks that cost them their limbs. Rozelle, however, recalled how proud he was of his tank unit from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

“”I had guys who were real discipline problems who became real heroes under fire,” he said, ignoring the gusty wind that made it feel well below zero on a partly cloudy day at nearly 10,000 feet.

A month after the explosion, Rozelle returned home to his wife, Kimberly.

Their son, Forrest, was born in August, the same month Rozelle tested out his new titanium foot.

Rozelle has passed a version of an Army physical and hopes to return to take command of a unit at Fort Carson next spring.

He also has plans to climb a 14,000-foot mountain.

For now, his attention was on the slopes of Breckenridge. Rozelle made the decision to have his foot amputated after doctors told him he would probably lose it and if he let them go ahead he could ski by Christmas.

He had already thought about getting back on skis – he learned when he was 4 – and he beat the doctors’ estimates by two weeks.

None of which surprised his wife.

“”He’s like a kid in a candy store,” Kimberly Rozelle said over a lunch of hamburgers at a mountain restaurant, their baby in a stroller nearby.

While he loves to ski, Rozelle considers himself a valuable military asset and can’t wait to get back to full duty.

“”I have war plans in my head,” he said.

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