Tom Ross: Wounded Iraq veteran back on his skis

Army officer proving everything is possible, serving as reminder of reality of war

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David Rozelle has big plans for the balance of 2004. By July, he hopes to be ready to compete in a mini triathlon. Next, in September, he intends to climb a 14,000-foot mountain, perhaps Longs Peak. Then in October, he is determined to return to the rugby pitch during Aspen's Ruggerfest.

If those goals sound admirable, but unremarkable, consider that Rozelle was seriously injured in June 2003 when the Humvee he was riding in drove over an anti-tank mine in the town of Hit, Iraq. His right foot was badly mangled by the mine explosion, and surgeons amputated his leg several inches above the ankle.

Rozelle, 31, is a captain, about to become a major, in the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.

Backcountry powder skiing already has been crossed off Rozelle's to-do list. He was among a group of "adaptive skiers" who were invited last week by Steamboat Powdercats to go up Buffalo Pass to seek out the untracked snow. I was fortunate to be invited to tag along.

Rozelle was a little hard to place at first. In my mind, I didn't include him among the skiers with disabilities. The group of 18 people that had driven up from Breckenridge the night before included staff and guides from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

The "adaptive skiers" were generally easy to spot -- some of them used wheelchairs, and others removed prosthetic legs in preparation spend a day on a single ski. Because his leg was amputated so far below his knee, Rozelle uses only a prosthetic foot and skis on two skis. Glancing at him, no one would have known.

When the Powdercat guides called out, "Who hasn't buddied up?" I raised my hand, and Rozelle suggested we watch out for each other. Little did I know who was watching my back to make sure I didn't fall in a tree well.

Rozelle began skiing a little tentatively, and I pegged him as an upper intermediate who hadn't been in the backcountry before. However by the third run, he was completely comfortable in the powder that was windblown and tricky in a few spots. I never guessed he had just spent four months getting use to a prosthetic foot.

We became split up in separate snowcats and our buddy arrangement disappeared in the rush to ski more powder. I apologized at one point and he said, "no problem." Thinking back, I'm certain he also probably scribbled down a note: "Never go to war with that guy!"

I didn't catch up to Rozelle until later in the day. And when I did, he was ebullient.

"Days like today, I can't believe I'm alive!" he exclaimed.

I still hadn't been clued in to the fact that Rozelle had lost part of his right leg in a tank mine explosion in Iraq.

I complimented him on his skiing.

"I'm in pretty good shape when I'm skiing, but when I walk or I stand, it's different," he confided. "When the day is done, it's like, 'give me some morphine.'"

Finally, I got the picture.

Although Rozelle is brimming with optimism as the first month of the new year plays out, he acknowledges, it wasn't always thus.

"It was a bumpy ride at first," he said. "The first four months (after the amputation) were tough, but the last two months have been smooth sailing."

Rozelle left for Iraq with his unit in April of 2003. He had some profound experiences along the way. In May, he was interviewed by correspondents from Newsweek. His unit was posted at Qaryat al-Marrajah, where it was assigned to guard a grim mass gravesite. There were reports that the long trenches could contain hundreds or even thousands of executed victims of Saddam Hussein's regime. In the Newsweek interview, Rozelle said his soldiers were reminded of the seriousness of the situation and the importance of preserving the evidence for history.

By May, the 132 armored cavalrymen Rozelle commanded had dismounted in the town of Hit, where they were performing a policing role, trying to disarm insurgents. That's when Rozelle was hurt.

Originally from Austin, Texas, he is married and has a child. Rozelle is eager to reassume command of his troop when it returns from Iraq this year. And if it is rotated back to the Middle East, he intends to be with his soldiers.

Rozelle credits Disabled Sports USA and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, along with instructor Sandy Dukat with getting him back up on skis. The confidence he has gained on skis has helped him to set goals to climb mountains, run triathlons and bang heads on the rugby pitch. He's not interested in any more surgeries, but he almost wishes the surgeons had taken his leg closer to the knee, so that he could use one of the fancy prosthetics made for sprinters.

On a spectacular January day on Buffalo Pass, Baghdad seemed almost an abstraction. But, David Rozelle will always live with the evidence that the war is very real. And for the rest of us, his experience serves as a reminder that everything is possible.

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