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But Hunt still had a long way to go until he felt normal. And he didn't think skiing was going to help. "My thought was, 'Screw that. Skiing is for a bunch of snobs who go down a damn mountain and brag about how much money they have,'" he recalls.

But then, clad in a cheap puffy snow jacket he'd bought at a Bass Pro Shop, he got on a pair of skis at Breckenridge — and something clicked. "Hold on," he remembers thinking. "This is like roller skating." He was familiar with that from childhood, and by day three, he was carving. He loved the coldness of being on the slopes, so different from the 125-degree days in Iraq. He loved the egalitarianism of the sport — how when he put on skis, it didn't matter what he looked like or sounded like; he was just like everyone else. And most of all, he loved how racing down the mountain made him feel. "I felt free as a bird," he says. "No one could touch me. For the first time, I was good at something."

At the end of the camp, he turned to his trainer, a young racer, and asked, "With the right motivation, could I race like you?"

During his three deployments to Iraq, Joel Hunt worked as an ordnance disposal technician, detonating roadside bombs on "RPG Alley."
During his three deployments to Iraq, Joel Hunt worked as an ordnance disposal technician, detonating roadside bombs on "RPG Alley."
Joel Hunt in early 2008, when he was on fifteen different medications and needed a cane or wheelchair to get around.
Bryce Boyer
Joel Hunt in early 2008, when he was on fifteen different medications and needed a cane or wheelchair to get around.

The kid just laughed. "No. You're too old."

That was just the sort of motivation Hunt needed.

He called Alfredia Johnson, his military support specialist at Operation TBI Freedom. Part of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Human Services, Operation TBI Freedom was founded in 2008 to help deal with the unprecedented number of soldiers suffering from head injuries, providing them with counseling, training and benefit-management services. The program also had emergency funds to help clients with various needs. Now Hunt, one of Operation TBI Freedom's first clients, told Johnson he needed a ski pass.

"He shared with me that going down the slopes as fast as he could gave him the greatest sense of freedom he ever had," says Johnson. So she got him a pass to Breckenridge. Hunt was soon well enough for his parents to return to Indiana, well enough to drive himself to and from the ski resort. He used the pass to ski 125 days during the rest of the 2008-'09 season.

The next year, Hunt was determined to enter the National Sports Center for the Disabled's alpine training program at Winter Park. One of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation programs anywhere, since 1970 the NSCD has been working with children and adults with disabilities, and today from its twin bases at Winter Park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High, it provides more than 3,000 people with athletic opportunities of all kinds. Hunt wanted to participate in the NSCD's elite program, which entailed five-day-a-week training all winter long, but he didn't have the $3,500 needed to cover it. So he turned to another organization for help: the Challenged Athletes Foundation's Operation Rebound program, which helps provide athletic funding for military personnel with disabilities.

Operation Rebound was happy to help, says program manager Nico Marcolongo. "A lot of troops, even if they've never skied before, it's a great outlet," he says. "All these men and women, they are out there serving in combat, and in a millisecond they find themselves missing their limbs or suffering from a traumatic brain injury or paralyzed or blind. And getting out there skiing, they can feel that adrenaline rush again in a healthy way." Not only did Operation Rebound fund Hunt's training, but Marcolongo also scored him some of the best skis around, courtesy of a phone call to Sean Campbell, the U.S. president of Japan-based Ogasaka Ski Company. "He was the underdog," Campbell says of Hunt. "And he put his life on the line for all of us. I wanted to support him as best I could."

Suddenly, Hunt had a major industry sponsor. Hunt and his Ogasaka skis commuted to Winter Park every weekday that season, and the following year he moved up there for the winter. One of two veterans with disabilities in the NSCD elite program, he learned how to navigate changes in snow terrain and fall lines, how to accommodate his double vision and his now completely paralyzed left leg. And unlike when he was in the Army, no one questioned whether Hunt had a disability; medical specialists had confirmed it. A VA doctor had verified his leg paralysis, concluding it was due to his brain injury — although according to Hunt, the connection between the two is not entirely clear. "A TBI is like the AIDS of the '80s," he says. "They are still trying to figure it out." He'd also been diagnosed with PTSD. With this diagnosis and help from Pogany, Cook and other advocates, Hunt successfully upgraded his disability rating to 40 percent, making him eligible for increased benefits.

And there were other benefits, too. After Hunt's divorce, he'd met someone new: Kassie Turgeon. This time, he approached the relationship the right way. They spent months getting to know each other, conversing via e-mail, before getting serious. After they'd been together for a while, Turgeon remarked on something Hunt had been too busy to notice: He no longer needed to rely so much on a cane, and his speech was definitely less slurred. He'd also cut back on his pill consumption. Eventually he was taking just two meds a day. Most important, he wasn't filled with so much self-doubt. "His confidence in himself has grown since he started skiing," Turgeon says now.

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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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