Vets leave tragedy behind, embrace camaraderie of sports clinic
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado – His legs are gone, but his smile has returned. And his spirit? Please. It’s as unbreakable as the alloy in his prosthetic legs.
Kevin Pannell, a 32-year-old Army veteran, is meticulous when he describes in precise detail the day when grenades shredded his legs.
His unit cautiously inched their way down a narrow alley in Sadr City, Iraq, on June 13, 2004.
It was his second deployment after joining the Army at 17, but this day was every soldier’s worst nightmare. An Iraqi soldier tossed three grenades down the alley. The violent explosions ripped through both of Pannell’s legs.
He knew it was bad. His legs were a bloody mangled mess.
“It wasn’t as painful as you might think,” he says smiling.
Pannell has a fearless mentality and a Teflon-like psychological fortitude that keeps him smiling and joking. He offers a humbling perspective of why and how he has accepted and embraced life without real legs from that day forward.
“Honestly, it was pretty easy,” he says about getting on with his life. “When they put me under [for surgery] over there, I kind of expected to die.”
Then the Portland, Ore., man chuckles. “So I was pretty stoked when I woke up. It was kind of a bonus.”
Years later, Pannell is making the best of his circumstances. He seized the opportunity to attend the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, held this past weekend, with activities spread out from Snowmass Village to Glenwood Springs.
In its 25th year, the Winter Sports Clinic brings in disabled veterans from all over the United States for a week of fun, rehabilitation, good food, good times, good friends and enough camaraderie to last a couple of lifetimes.
“This is an awesome event,” Pannell says. “It’s really fun hanging out with the people. It’s really about being around everyone. The skiing and snowboarding is a bonus, but it’s definitely about the people you meet.”
The clinic is about veterans supporting veterans, veterans sharing stories, veterans hugging, shaking hands, bumping fists, laughing and hanging out with one another.
This week is about disabled veterans living life to the fullest.
Every veteran’s story has a tragic chapter of how they were injured.
Noah Currier is a 29-year-old former Marine from Illinois.
But, as he says, once a Marine always a Marine.
“In the beginning it was tough,” he says about the mental challenge he had to endure. “When you’re a Marine, you picture yourself being at the peak of your game.”
The wheelchair became part of his life on June 2, 2003.
After seven months in Iraq, he returned home, only to be paralyzed in a military truck accident three days after setting foot back on U.S. soil.
At first, Currier’s warrior mentality refused to accept his diagnosis.
“I just thought I would work hard and it would be OK. But eventually you realize that it didn’t matter how hard you work, it wasn’t going to happen.”
Currier says this week offers him the special opportunity to spend time with other disabled veterans.
“We all go back to our hometowns and most of the time we’re the only person [in a wheelchair]. We don’t have anybody we can relate to in our hometowns.”
The mental adjustment is different for each veteran.
For 63-year-old Fred Colson of Centennial, the smile of a prankster beams from above his gray beard. On his head is a hat with green feathers. It seems to match his personality perfectly. (He is not related to Post Independent reporter John Colson.)
The New Hampshire native suffered a spinal cord injury in 1977.
Colson confesses that he didn’t adjust well at first to being paralyzed.
“You didn’t want to talk to me back then,” he said.
It’s hard to believe now that this cheerful man would have ever been cantankerous or unapproachable. But that’s the way he was during the first four years of his life after the accident.
“I was the poster child for Preparation H.” He pauses for effect. “I was a real pain in the butt.”
“I got tired of staying home. I was getting tired of the ‘poor me’s,’ so I figured I better start doing something.”
He’s never looked back.
Like most, if not all, veterans at the clinic, they say it’s the camaraderie they have with their fellow vets that makes the clinic special.
“These guys have become part of my extended family. It’s really special to come here,” he adds.
One of the younger participants in the clinic may have best captured what life is all about after suffering a devastating injury.
Tim Vixay, of Oregon City, Ore., was a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton when he suffered a spinal cord injury diving into the ocean north of San Diego on July 28, 2008.
“At some point you hit the wall and you know you have to move on,” he says, demonstrating his impervious attitude.
Vixay admits that there are still peaks and valleys, but he tries to stay at the top of his mental game.
“It’s not like you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease like cancer where things could get progressively worse,” he says flatly. “You are paralyzed and you just have to keep moving forward.”
Vixay summed up what the Winter Sports Clinic – and life – is for him and other disabled veterans.
“It’s all about experiencing and trying new things,” he says.
Then he rotates his wheelchair around and rolls off.
He is moving forward and living life to the fullest.
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