Wounded Warrior Project brings vets to Keystone for adaptive skiing
Army Capt. Diggs Brown hit his head more than a few times during a military career spanning three decades, but it took just one unexpected twist and jerk to permanently change his life.
Like that would stop the 58-year-old Fort Collins resident from getting back on skis.
“I have bad knees, bad elbows, bad shoulders and now a banged-up head,” Brown said on Friday. “I’ve just been beat up over time.”
Early that morning, Brown was milling about the crowded main floor at the Keystone Adaptive Center with his service dog, a black lab named Arthur. Two young girls seated on a nearby bench whispered and pointed excitedly when the dog wandered by, wagging his tail as he weaved through the fray. Despite a patch reading “Service Dog Do Not Pet” on Arthur’s vest — it sits next to a patch for the Fabulous Bombay Lounge in Kabul, Afghanistan — the two girls ran their fingers through his fur, laughed, then got back to cinching their ski boots.
Over the past two years, Brown and Arthur have been constant companions. The dog is a vital part of his recovery: The retired Army Special Forces captain has struggled with socialization and day-to-day exchanges since that fateful day in 2002 when he suffered a traumatic brain injury that eventually brought his 34-year career to a close.
“It’s funny,” Brown said with a glint of good humor, “after this long in the military and just a few nanoseconds made the difference.”
The day started like any other for a U.S. Army captain on the ground at wartime. Brown was stationed in Afghanistan, where the daily routine consisted of traveling through cities and over wide swaths of desert dotted with roadside bombs. As he explains, this was early during the war in Afghanistan, long before the military supplied armored personnel carriers and Humvees with long-range gunfire detection.
The remedy for IEDs: drive fast.
Brown was riding in the back seat of the truck — no seatbelt, just in case he and the rest needed to quickly unload — when something happened. He’s still fuzzy on the specifics, but the driver jerked the wheel rapidly to avoid a threat and sent the vehicle barreling off the road.
Luckily, Brown knows they didn’t hit an IED — otherwise, the situation could have been much, much worse. But the crash was enough to toss him around the back seat and jostle his brain violently.
Those few nanoseconds were on Brown’s mind as he petted Arthur in the adaptive center, located just steps from the base of Peru Express and 1,000 acres of unpredictable ski terrain, the kind of terrain anyone with a head injury thinks twice about exploring.
“That’s a good question, why I should get out,” said Brown, who skied often before his injury but hadn’t been back on the snow until this weekend. “I think it was a matter of regaining my confidence and doing the things I was able to do before.”
And Brown was far from alone. He and Arthur joined 20 other participants with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit dedicated to current and former military personnel injured during service. Nearly every branch of the military was represented in the jam-packed center, from Marines with brain injuries like Brown’s to Army Sgt. 1st Class Howie Sanborne, a former member of the Golden Knights parachute team who was hit by a car while training stateside for a triathlon.
While Brown finished checking his gear, George Harrison, a volunteer of six years at the adaptive center, wandered over and began chatting. The two skied together on Thursday, when Brown made his first turns in more than a decade, and Harrison was impressed with his partner’s confidence.
“He was going faster than me by the end of the day,” Garrison said with a laugh. Brown also chuckled, then looked to Arthur.
“Socializing can become quite difficult with TBI and those head injuries,” Brown said. “The beauty of this (program) is you’re with other veterans who have been through similar experiences, or at least they understand what you’re going through. They’ve been there.”
Brown checked his gear a final time and nodded at Garrison.
“Are you ready, captain?” Garrison asked and the two headed to the lift line.
A NEW NORMAL
This year marks the seventh season Keystone and the Adaptive Center have partnered with Adaptive Adventures, a national nonprofit with offices in Lakewood, to host an extended weekend for the Wounded Warrior Project.
Like Brown and Sanborne, most of the 21 participants were attending one of the program’s ski weekends, spread among all-in-one resorts like Keystone, Breckenridge and Vail, for the first time. The Keystone weekend is one of several programs during the year, including a weeklong river trip in summer and a family-friendly weekend
This year also marks Kendal Oakleaf’s third season coordinating the on-snow activities. As program manager for the Adaptive Center, she has worked with dozens of veterans and their families. While the midwinter weekend tends to draw single participants or small groups — say, just a veteran and his or her spouse — children like Arthur’s two admirers are more than welcome.
In terms of recovery, children and spouses occasionally serve the same purpose as the service dogs. Many veterans struggle with socialization, readjustment and post-traumatic stress disorder long after they return from deployment, and the Wounded Warrior Project gives them healthy outlets for such new and complex frustrations. The program pays and plans for everything, from travel to meals to an afternoon spa day, donated by Keystone Lodge and Spa.
“For some of these participants, they’ve spent three or four years away from their family,” Oakleaf said. “They have free time to do their own thing and learn, but they also have time to just be together and be a family again.”
The events and spa days are enticing, yet Oakleaf says the skiing and snowboarding and adaptive skiing are still the most enjoyable for the smaller, often younger, midwinter veterans groups.
“The guys are a little bit more aggressive than the other groups we get,” said Oakleaf, who hosts events at the Adaptive Center throughout the year for Summit County special education and Front Range school groups. “They really love skiing and love to get at it a bit more.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the veterans don’t feel some hesitation. Brown worried about his balance and particularly his head — he was grateful to be wearing a helmet when he collided with a snowboarder while night skiing later on Friday — but he hardly fell. He and Garrison even powered through black diamonds after Brown’s ski legs returned.
“Part of getting past all the issues you have is giving yourself a challenge and seeing if you can meet it,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of getting on the slope, pointing your skis downhill and just going. It’s funny — I only fell once and that’s while I was standing” in the lift line.
TO THE SLOPES
If Brown’s injury puts a damper on his social life, it’s hard to tell, at least on the slopes. Maybe it’s Arthur, or maybe it’s just being in the company of fellow veterans, but his senses of humor and awe are still intact.
As he finishes prepping to load the lift, he thinks back on everything he missed about skiing. Keystone was his favorite mountain. Even for a career military man with dozens of parachute jumps under his belt — “Sometimes I miss it, sometimes I don’t,” he said — there’s nothing quite like riding a chairlift.
“My favorite part of everything is riding the chairlift,” Brown said as he and Garrison shuffled through the relatively empty line. “It’s just peaceful and quiet, like you’re flying through the trees. Of course, there’s a constant ringing in the background, in my ears, but I’m used to that by now.”
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