After his second rotation, Hunt requested a transfer to Fort Carson. He'd always wanted to go to Colorado, and he'd also heard that he wouldn't be sent back to Iraq if he were stationed here. He was wrong. Although there were fewer bombs during his third deployment, that didn't make this stint any less traumatic. Hunt's left foot started acting up and he began forgetting things. His superiors in Iraq had little sympathy, and he became a target for verbal abuse.

Then Brock, his best friend in Iraq, died. He wasn't with Brock the day the crane malfunctioned, when a chain slipped loose and whipped across his friend's throat. He didn't see what happened with his own eyes — but he could still see it in his head.

Pogany listened to Hunt's story, then laid out a plan: He was going to work on upgrading Hunt's disability rating so that he could get the medical and financial support he needed and deserved. In the meantime, Pogany told him, "You need to give yourself space between what happened in Iraq and what happens now. The only thing you guys should focus on now is your health, your recovery, your return to life. To do the things that you used to enjoy."

But what life was there to return to? What things did he enjoy? Hunt had joined the Army right out of high school, figuring he had no other option. He'd assumed he'd never get accepted by the colleges he'd applied to — although not long after he enlisted, acceptance letters started arriving in the mail.

That's just the kind of kid he was. Growing up in Kokomo, Indiana, Hunt often doubted himself. Even though he was a successful field-goal kicker for the varsity football team, every time he was brought out to the forty-yard line during a game, he'd be thinking to himself, "I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this."

"Everything I did, I found I was scared a little bit in my abilities," Hunt says now. "I lacked confidence."

And in the months following his meeting with Pogany, Hunt's self-confidence continued to falter as his left leg deteriorated. Eventually, he lost all feeling in it. But since he was only 10 percent disabled according to the Army, he didn't qualify for its Wounded Warrior program, which is designed to assist injured soldiers. He learned this when he called Christine Cook, the Denver-based Wounded Warrior advocate. But that didn't stop Cook from advocating on Hunt's behalf, the first of many non-qualifying veterans' cases she'd end up working on from what she called her "covert drawer."

"I learned very quickly that Joel had suffered an injury that had impacted significantly his abilities," says Cook, who retired in 2011 but is still working as an independent soldiers' advocate on a pro bono basis. "He was 'in the trough,' the time when he came out of the military and was still waiting for the VA's exam process for disability compensation. He had no income, and he had bills to pay."

That trough seemed to be getting deeper by the day. After he'd transferred to Fort Carson, Hunt had met a woman through a dating website and they quickly tied the knot, getting married while he was on leave from Iraq. "I wanted someone waiting for me when the bus stopped," he explains. "I didn't want to be the guy who comes home from war and is lucky to have a six-pack in the fridge."

But in truth, he'd married a stranger — and after he left the Army, he found that the stranger wasn't someone he got along with. By late 2007, Hunt and his wife had moved to Denver to be closer to the metro-area VA hospital system, which they'd been told was better suited to helping with Hunt's condition. But he needed help with his home life, too. In March 2008, Hunt's wife was arrested for aggravated assault after she pushed him down the stairs. That was the end of their marriage — and Hunt was left utterly alone.

A few days later, Hunt's parents in Indiana got a call from a representative of the VA. "They said, 'Your son has bottomed out,'" remembers David Hunt, his father. And then the rep said this: "There is no place left but a VA hospital."

His parents weren't going to let that happen. They left Indiana and moved in with their son. They figured that was the best — and maybe only — chance he had. "He was homebound, and he didn't have any friends," his father says. "He never got out, and he had PTSD. The wheelchair kept him confined to a dark place, and he wasn't coming out."

***********

Skiing wasn't for him. That's what Joel Hunt thought in December 2008, when his parents pressured him into attending a three-day ski camp at Breckenridge designed for veterans with TBIs. He'd come a long way since his parents had moved in with him nine months earlier. They'd forced him out of his wheelchair and out on walks — first up and down the street, then around the block. He was even driving again. "He started coming back," says his father. "He was out in society, out in the real world."

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1 comments
Joel H-train Hunt
Joel H-train Hunt

How do I get copies since I'm in Utah for competition would like to give out copies to the TBI camp I'm mentoring next month???

 
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