Longform

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.

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- Joel Hunt, vet turned ski racer, recounts his struggles: "I wished that I had died in Iraq"
- Video: Joel Hunt, vet-turned-Paralympic hopeful, during pre-skiing slump

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.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner