Joel Hunt, vet turned ski racer, recounts his struggles: "I wished that I had died in Iraq"
This week's cover story, "Competitive skiing kept Army veteran Joel Hunt from going downhill," details the story of Hunt, who in a five-year span has gone from being a recently discharged Iraq war veteran struggling with debilitating injuries to a pro skier with a shot at the 2014 Paralympics in Russia. But Hunt is more than a ski racer. He's also become an advocate for other soldiers, and in "My Life From the Ski Lift," a speech he recites every chance he gets, he recounts his journey. It's powerful stuff -- as Hunt puts it, "I make grown men cry." Continue for the full, unedited speech.
My life from the ski lift
I joined the army in 1998 motivated to make the service a 20 year career. On June 17, 2005, during my third Iraq combat deployment in as many years, I was injured by a road-side blast that left me with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).
When I returned home injured I felt helpless. I was confined to a wheelchair and my parents were compelled to move in with me and become my caregivers. I consistently endured bouts of dizziness and blackouts and double-vision made it difficult for me to focus. My TBI also affected my body's ability to regulate body temperature and I was always at risk of over-heating. I could not control nor feel my legs. I was on 15 different medications, the side-effects of which caused me to slur my speech and significantly disrupted my ability to think and concentrate. I sounded and acted as if I were drunk.
Prior to my injury, I prided myself on providing for my soldiers and now I had to swallow my pride and ask for help. I am sure you know how that makes a man feel. I felt small and severely depressed. I was mad at society and hated my life. Night after night, I laid in the dark remembering all my buddies that didn't come home. I felt guilty when I saw the families of my buddies who were killed in Iraq. Looking into the eyes of their widows and now fatherless children, I felt their anguish and knew they saw me as someone who was lucky to make it back while their loved ones didn't. This was the most difficult part of my homecoming. I couldn't get the memories of my dead buddies out of my head. I felt that I should have done more to keep them alive. I wished that I had died in Iraq rather than face the difficulties of my situation.
Admittedly, prior to my injury, I didn't understand the challenges that people with disabilities face. I guess you can't truly understand what it's like to be disabled until your own life is affected by it in some way. Prior to my injury It wasn't a priority of mine to advocate for or support people with disabilities. However, my injury changed my perspective and gave me a new outlook on life. When I came home I had a new respect for the challenges faced by the disabled. I knew first-hand how challenging a disability can be.
My parents were my biggest supporters. They constantly motivated me to get out of the house and get active. I was lucky because a lot of soldiers didn't have any support. One sport that they encouraged me to do was skiing. Growing up poor and raised in a small town near Kokomo, Indiana, I never had the opportunity to ski as a kid. I always thought that skiing was reserved for people who had money. What I didn't realize is that skiing would change my life.
In December 2008, my parents forced me to go to a ski camp for veterans with TBI. Begrudging I went. Although I felt self-conscious about my TBI and extremely anxious about being around others whom I'd never met due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), on December 17, 2008, I learned how to ski. Within three days of learning to ski I was carving while going downhill. My instructor, who was a former ski racer, told me that I was doing an awesome job. However, when I asked him if I too could become a ski racer his reply was "No, you're too old." This made me mad and determined, so much so that I skied 125 days that season.
Determined to ski race but lacking funds, in 2009 I turned to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) for assistance. CAF's Operation Rebound program for injured troops and first responders provided me with the equipment and additional funding necessary to compete as a downhill ski racer.
By the end of the 2009-2010 ski season I was ranked in top 10 of adaptive skiers nationally. Today, I am ranked 5th nationally and 50th in the world as an adaptive skier. Although I remain challenged by TBI, paralysis in my left leg and double-vision that makes it difficult to focus, particularly when racing a slalom course, I have made great strides over the past three years. I'm now only on three medications and I have become an elite ski racer.
Skiing is a way of rehabilitating and getting off of medications. It shows others that people can improve their situation through a good work ethic and constant training. My favorite saying is train like you're the worst skier in the world and race like a champion. A lot of people hope to make the Paraylmpic team. I'm now confident that I can achieve this goal and become the best skier in the world. By doing so, I hope to inspire others with disabilities by showing them that if a regular guy like me can make it anybody can make it. It's my hope that by setting the example, others will realize that tough times don't last, tough people do.
More from our Sports archive circa August 2012: "Echo Mountain to become private Front Range Ski Club after yesterday's auction."