Competitive skiing kept Army veteran Joel Hunt from going downhill
The midday sun is high overhead when Captain America steps into the start gate.
The skier is Joel Hunt, dressed in the Captain America suit he wore on Halloween. The fun outfit makes sense: The Wells Fargo Ski Cup is a weekend-long fundraiser at Winter Park for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, and this particular event, the DaVita Corporate Cup, pairs elite racers with disabilities with five-person corporate teams. The results won't count toward Hunt's ultimate goal: becoming a member of the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team and going to the 2014 Paralympics in Russia.
Still, big names like Wells Fargo, DaVita and Charles Schwab have paid $5,000 for each of their teams in the race. The pressure is on for pros like Hunt to deliver.
"Joel is a veteran," reports the race announcer. He doesn't go into the details. How, during his three Iraq deployments, Hunt was exposed to more than 100 improvised explosive-device blasts, explosions that left him with a traumatic brain injury that, among other things, has slowly paralyzed his left leg. How, after he was discharged in 2007, he was confined to a wheelchair, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. How, until four years ago, he had never even been on skis.
There's no time for Hunt's story. His race is about to begin.
The start gates open and Hunt is off, racing neck and neck with the two other disabled skiers as they weave through the gates on parallel courses. But then, near the bottom, Hunt misses a gate and is disqualified. It's hard enough skiing with a paralyzed left leg, the source of Hunt's skiing disability, hard enough to maneuver through a gate when double vision makes you see multiples. But loud noises also set Hunt off, and the music exploding from the race speakers distracted him.
He pulls to a stop at the bottom of the course, removing his helmet to reveal a hairless dome glistening with sweat. A wispy goatee droops from a disappointed frown. As Hunt stomps through the snow, his ski-boot waddle masks the way he drags his left leg as he walks. Aside from Hunt's eye-blinking tic, there's no hint of his disability, no hint of his wounds. His corporate teammates, drinking cans of Coors by the hospitality tent, lean over the race barrier to offer consolation. "You gotta focus!" one of them teases.
Captain America just smiles.
I'm 29 years old and I feel like I'm 50," said Hunt. It was February 2008, and he and his wife were sitting in an Olive Garden in west Denver, meeting with Andrew Pogany, an investigator for the Washington, D.C.-based National Veterans Legal Services Program. In 2003, Pogany had been accused of cowardice for a breakdown in Iraq. His symptoms were eventually linked to his anti-malarial medication, and he was medically retired and honorably discharged ("The Good Soldier," March 20, 2008). Since then, working out of a Denver office, Pogany had been helping vets untangle the bureaucracy involved with the Department of Defense's medical, military-justice and veterans'-benefits systems. After a few minutes with Hunt, it was clear to Pogany that this was a man who desperately needed help.
Hunt had been medically retired from the Army in October 2007 because of chronic pain in his left foot. The ailment garnered Hunt just a 10 percent disability rating on the Department of Veterans Affairs' 10-to-100 rating system, which meant he didn't qualify for a military pension or health insurance. But it seemed to Hunt that there was much more wrong with him than just a bad leg. He'd been plagued by memory loss and headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts. He couldn't drive anymore, and the only way he could get around was with the help of a cane or in a wheelchair. He was taking a cocktail of fifteen different medications for pain, migraines, seizures, insomnia and survivor's guilt. And yet this potent mix hadn't stopped his thoughts of suicide. "My symptoms keep getting worse and worse and worse," said Hunt, breathing heavily, his Hoosier drawl slurring. "I don't want to be like this forever."
"You have signs of a traumatic brain injury," Pogany replied. "A lot of signs."
Brain injuries caused by head trauma from mortar attacks or roadside bombs have become the signature wounds of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter of which began ten years ago this week. Five years ago, Fort Carson was reporting that nearly 18 percent of its soldiers returning from war had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which can lead to a host of lingering psychological and physical symptoms, including cognitive struggles, speech problems, personality changes and loss of limb function. According to 2011 Department of Defense figures, 266,810 soldiers have suffered brain injuries of all kinds since 2000. Many experts suggest that there are tens of thousands more cases that have gone undiagnosed.
At the time that he was talking to Pogany, Hunt was among the undiagnosed. But he seemed to fit the profile for a TBI, considering what he'd gone through during his first two deployments to Iraq, which had come while he was stationed at a U.S. Army base in Bamberg, Germany. An explosive-ordnance disposal technician, Hunt was tasked during both tours with finding and helping to detonate IEDs along "RPG Alley," the violence-plagued roadway between Baghdad and the airport. Even from safe distances, the shockwaves from bombs washed over Hunt and his fellow soldiers with head-rattling force. And not all of the explosions he experienced were part of the plan. Like the time a bomb went off next to the Humvee he was riding in, which made him realize "I wasn't home anymore." Or the time an IED detonated near where Hunt and his fellow specialists were walking, leaving Hunt with a lingering ringing in his skull — and his squad leader in pieces.
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."
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?"
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.
Maybe that extra confidence was why, this season, Hunt felt ready to make the move to a new program: the Paralympic Alpine Development Program-Aspen, the first alpine skiing training program associated with the U.S. Paralympics. Since 1988, the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games have followed the regular Olympics games. In the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, more than 500 athletes from 44 nations competed in five sports: biathlon, cross-country skiing, wheelchair curling, sledge hockey and alpine skiing. And the Aspen development program is all about getting disabled athletes ready to take home alpine medals in 2014 in Russia.
Hunt hopes to be among the winners. All this season in Aspen, he's been working on racing on the edge of his skis, figuring out on which gate poles he needs to go wide. At times his left leg is such a hassle that he wonders if it would be better to have it removed and race as an amputee, using either a single monoski device or a prosthetic device.
But despite these doubts, his hard work is paying off. Hunt is in the running for the U.S. Paralympic team, as evidenced by the fact that he was just notified that he'll be subjected to regular drug tests by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. If he skis well enough in certain key races between now and next January, he could be going to Russia as the first Paralympic skier with a TBI.
Barrett Stein, his coach in Aspen, thinks it will happen. "He doesn't give up," he says of Hunt. "He is going and going, and he is skiing so well right now."
The biggest concern, he adds, is that Hunt he might get hurt along the way. "He gives 120 percent every time," says Stein. "He crashes a lot."
Maybe he's scared about what might catch up to him if he ever slows down.
Turn right. Stop. Turn left."
Hunt is navigating a metro Super Target with his service dog, Barrett, while a representative of Freedom Service Dogs follows behind with a clipboard, grading Barrett's ability to steer Hunt through the aisles of lamps and picture frames. It's two days before the start of the Wells Fargo Ski Cup, and Hunt is briefly back in Denver, having left the Aspen training program early in order to squeeze in as many errands as possible before he embarks on a whirlwind tour of ski races, all paid for by Operation Rebound. There's the upcoming fundraiser in Winter Park, for example, followed by events in Park City, Utah; Stowe, Vermont; and Quebec, Canada.
Among his chores is re-certifying his service dog for another year. Freedom Service Dogs paired Hunt and Barrett last March, and since then, they've become inseparable. "That dog is just like a big brother," says Hunt's father, David. "That dog is probably as close to him as anybody I have seen." Like all canines from Freedom Service Dogs, Barrett, a golden retriever-Labrador mix, was a rescue dog trained to work with clients with disabilities. As a puppy, Barrett was stuffed in a pillowcase and thrown in a river, nearly drowning before he was rescued and taken to an animal shelter. On his camouflage-colored harness, Barrett wears a patch emblazoned with one of Hunt's favorite sayings: "Tough times don't last, tough people do."
The same applies to tough dogs.
"Good job," Hunt says to Barrett after he aces the test, having ignored the little kids shouting "Doggie!" from a shopping cart and gently nudging Hunt's hand when he pretends to accidentally let go of his leash. Hunt holds his palm up for a celebratory high-five, and Barrett leaps up and touches it with his nose. Hunt isn't surprised by Barrett's results; the dog does everything well. Thanks to a metal handle attached to his harness, Barrett functions as a four-legged walking cane and positions himself to cushion Hunt if he stumbles during one of his infrequent dizzy spells or blackouts. According to Hunt, Barrett can even iron and fold clothes. And there are other things Barrett does that can't be graded on a certification test. "You can't teach a service dog to deal with someone with PTSD," says Hunt. "You just have to bond with him." When Hunt's at home, Barrett sleeps at the foot of his bed. When he's racing, Barrett waits at the finish line with a friend or colleague, and at night the two share a hotel bed.
Freedom Service Dogs isn't the only non-skiing support program Hunt is using. Last winter, at an NSCD event at Winter Park, he connected with James Ball, founder of the Minnesota nonprofit Tee it Up for the Troops. After hearing Hunt's story, Ball arranged for him to receive a free set of clubs and private golf lessons. "I told him, 'Now there might be another chapter in your life,'" says Ball. "'You might find it on the golf course.'" Hunt took to golf like he'd taken to skiing: The swing of the club and the click of it connecting with the ball reminded him of squeezing the trigger of his old service rifle. By the third day, he was driving the ball to the green.
But even more than golf and skiing, Hunt has embraced his role as an advocate. He doesn't have a job, and spends most of his time volunteering for one organization or another. "My main goal in life other than making the Olympics is to create opportunities for soldiers that didn't exist for me," he says. "Helping people kind of helped me. It built my confidence up."
The once-homebound loner crafted the story of his recovery into a speech, "My Life From the Ski Lift," which he recites at events every chance he gets. "I wished that I had died in Iraq rather than face the difficulties of my situation," he tells his audience. But now, he adds, he hopes to become "the best skier in the world," to show "that if a regular guy like me can make it, anybody can make it."
With a speech like that, Hunt says with a smile, "I make grown men cry."
Hunt volunteers at schools, teaching children about disabilities. As an unpaid liaison for Operation Rebound, he's also arranged veteran excursions ranging from a skydiving trip that made headlines on CNN to a visit to Broncos training camp, where he heard Peyton Manning utter a line that's become another mantra: "Just play well, and the scoreboard will speak for itself." He started an "Operation Freedom" Facebook group to let veterans know about special military memberships at Sam's Club and trips he was organizing to Water World and Comedy Works, to help "individuals who, like me, are trapped in a dark room with no friends, no family and almost giving up on life." And after he realized that his father's longtime introversion and stubbornness were symptoms of PTSD from his military service in Vietnam, he convinced him to get checked out by the VA. David Hunt ended up with a 40 percent disability rating, too.
Seeing where Joel Hunt is now, it's hard for ex-Wounded Warrior Advocate Christine Cook to imagine that this is the same guy who launched her "covert drawer" caseload. "Joel's transition is really almost miraculous," she says. "Who would have thought this three-combat warrior who was blown up countless times would be where he is right now, such a rock star?"
Andrew Pogany agrees that Hunt's recovery since their initial meeting in 2008 has been inspirational. But Hunt's story also illustrates just how much work is often needed to get such soldiers out of their dark place, out of their trough. By this point, he says, Hunt has probably received nearly $250,000 worth of services. "Unfortunately, first we have to find people like Joel. And people have to pretty much work round the clock, on on-on-one assistance with them in navigating the system, in order to overcome the obstacles they will encounter," says Pogany. "It's really sad that people like him have to fight for this. It's a colossal undertaking."
And for Hunt, some obstacles remain.
In 2011, on the day of his wedding to Turgeon, Hunt learned that his mom had pancreatic cancer. He pulled all the strings he could to ensure that she'd be alive to see him receive his Purple Heart, which he'd become eligible for that year when the Pentagon changed the medal's standards to accommodate brain injuries. His efforts paid off: The retired general assigned to pin on Hunt's Purple Heart during a ceremony in early 2012 "looked like I had kicked him in the balls" when Hunt said he wanted his mom to do the honors instead, Hunt remembers. But dealing with his mother's illness and Army bureaucracy was distracting. And at a January 11, 2012, race in New Hampshire, he was so distracted that he crashed, fracturing his T9 vertebra. He was out for the rest of the season.
"With PTSD, it's like eating four candy bars and drinking nine Mountain Dews," he says. Without skiing, and with all that internal energy built up, he fell back into the trough. And one night while Turgeon was working late, Hunt sat on his bed with a full bottle of Percocet in his hand. If Barrett hadn't come over, hadn't put his paw in his lap and looked at him, Hunt says, he probably would have swallowed all the pain meds.
Life has gotten better since then. Learning to play golf has helped, as has working with the Aspen Paralympic training program. And when his mother passed away last October, he recommitted to his goal. "When I started this, I wasn't worried about the Paralympics, just worried about skiing and rehabilitation," he says. "After my mom died, it changed. It's almost like I'm skiing for her. Her dream before she died was for me to go to the Paralympics. And now I don't see it not happening."
But no matter how hard he works, no matter how fast he goes, sometimes a bad dream catches him in the middle of the night. He's in the middle of a field in Iraq, and he sees Brock. When Hunt puts his hand on his friend's shoulder, Brock turns around. His throat is slit open.
"Why did you leave me?" he asks.
Joel Hunt once again steps into the start gate at the Wells Fargo Ski Cup course. This time he's wearing his professional racing outfit, not his Captain America suit. It's the day after the DaVita Corporate Cup, and this race is part of a separate Ski Cup event, the World Disabled Invitational, in which some of the best disabled skiers in the world compete. This isn't the place for Halloween costumes.
This time when the start gates open, Hunt is focused. He doesn't flinch when the racer to his left stumbles. Despite his double vision and bad leg, he hits every gate pole perfectly. But to his right, Serbian racer Jasmin Bambur is even faster. When the two reach the finish line, Bambur is ahead by a fraction of a second.
But when Turgeon and Barrett, who've been watching from the hospitality tent, meet Hunt at the end of the race, he seems content. Bambur, after all, was a top-ten finisher in the 2010 Paralympic Games, at a time when Hunt had barely begun to ski. Now, three years later, Hunt had nearly beaten him.
And NSCD media-relations staffer approaches: A team of Australian reporters would like to talk to Hunt. "Sure," he says, and walks over to meet them after he finishes autographing his race jersey for the son of a friend. As the reporters shake their heads in disbelief, Hunt offers an abbreviated version of his "My Life From the Ski Lift" speech, the one that makes grown men cry. He has Barrett do his high-five trick, leaping up to touch Hunt's palm as the photographers snap away. And he hands out copies of the official "Joel Hunt" glossy collector's card printed up by Operation Rebound. Hunt made sure his bio on the back included his favorite saying:
"Tough times don't last, tough people do."
"Who would have thought this three-combat warrior who was blown up countless times would be where he is right now, such a rock star?"
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