In July 2011, Kevin Dubois was a marine securing a helicopter-landing zone in Afghanistan when he placed his foot on an improvised explosive device. The blast tore him nearly in half, severing his legs off at his waist. It took four days to transport him to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “I don’t remember any of the trip,” says Dubois, a Rhode Island native. “The first thing I remembered was waking up with my wife by my bed.” Doctors were able to save him from about his stomach up.
Flash forward six months to January 2012 to find Dubois waking up to another life-changing moment: looking out the window of his hotel to see a foot of fresh powder snow covering Golden Peak, a popular ski venue in Vail, Colorado. Before his amputation, Dubois, 25, and his wife, Kayla, were avid snowboarders. On this day in January, Dubois strapped himself into a specially made chair that featured a molded seat to keep him from slipping out of place (photo top left). The chair was connected to a shock absorber that was in turn attached to a double ski. Sitting at breakfast with 55 other recently wounded veterans and their families, he clearly couldn’t wait to take his skis out for a run.
“We’re riding that today,” Dubois said, pointing up a looming slope. “We’re going everywhere on this mountain.”
Dubois is one of some 350 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have survived traumatic incidents and loss of limbs, and then learned to ski as part of the Vail Veterans Program. Founded in 2003 by Vail humanitarian Cheryl Jensen and U.S. Army Major David Rozelle, the mission of the Vail Veteran’s Program is to teach amputee military service members and their families to ski, snowboard, river raft, and horseback ride with their loved ones. “We want to give these wounded warriors a chance to regain their confidence, to take time out with their loved ones away from a hospital, and give them hope for the future,” says Wendy Rimel, who works with the program.
Enthusiasts will tell you that the essential sensation of skiing, snowboarding and other “gravity sports” is freedom, and that’s exactly the experience Vail Vets wants to give to its participants. “We want to give them the ability and feeling of being the master of their own destiny,” says Rimel. With adaptive equipment, wounded veterans can fully and equally participate in these sports, side by side, with their families again.
Ski therapy has certainly proven its merits, if you ask program participants. “One of our wounded warriors said to me, ‘We aren’t here to focus on our disability,’ ” Jensen says. “ ‘We want to discover our new abilities.’ I loved that. We’re exposing them to things they wouldn’t otherwise try, and they’re making the most of it.”
Marine Sergeant Greg Edwards, a Vail Veterans Program participant, puts it this way: “When you have limbs torn from your body, skiing is one of those things that gets put on the top of the ‘I’ll never do that again list,’ ” he says. “Then when someone shows you that you can ski, and that you can ski as well as someone who has all their limbs, that gives you confidence. It also showed my wife and children that just because daddy is hurt doesn’t mean we can’t do things together.”