Steamboat Springs At a glance, Sal Gonzalez didn’t belong.
Wounded Warriors means guys in wheelchairs, right? And their trip to a ski resort involves sit skis?
Those guys did attend the STARS and Stripes Heroes Camp last weekend put on by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports and Steamboat Ski Area. There were soldiers whose amazing stories of survival were told first by what wasn't there — an arm, legs or, in the case of attendee Mark Litynski, all three of those limbs.
Gonzalez — Gonz because “everyone in the military named Gonzalez gets nicknamed Gonz,” he explained — worked Sunday to figure out snowboarding as quickly as possible. At a glance, it looked like a standard, if perhaps accelerated, day for a beginner snowboarding lesson. He fell to his knees repeatedly while trying to master the toe-side turn and often had to brush snow from an always-grinning face.
Gonzalez isn’t your standard snowboarder. His ski pants conceal the lower half of his left leg that’s been replaced by a prosthetic.
If anything, the three days of skiing and snowboarding proved that there’s no box in which these veterans fit. They aren’t all casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many suffered from noncombat injuries stateside. They weren’t all victims of improvised explosive devices, and they didn’t all use wheelchairs. Many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
They did all need a weekend away and a weekend together. A couple of days at a ski resort can be fun for anyone, but to those who’ve battled the demons that come with war and military service, time together is more than a vacation, no matter what it may look like from the outside.
Unlucky No. 7
The child of Mexican immigrants and a product of east Los Angeles, there’s plenty about Gonzalez that defies assumption. For instance, he’s now living in Nashville and working on a country music career.
He entered the U.S. Marine Corps after high school when he realized two things: He didn’t have the kind of grades that got his sisters into college, and he wanted to give back to his country.
He lost his leg to an IED in Iraq in 2004, but it’s not the injury that’s lingered darkly in his mind. It’s what he could have done to prevent it and what else that bomb took: the life of 1st Lt. Matthew D. Lynch.
“At that point, I’d been blown up six times,” Gonzalez said, recounting the two months he served in Ramadi, Iraq, with Lynch and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment. “None of those were good enough to even scratch our paint.”
IEDs were a way of life for the unit, which would run supplies to outlying Marine bases on a daily basis. They took the same roads and bomb makers continued to set traps.
“Usually, they don’t aim them quite right,” Gonzalez said. “Most of the time, the armor was sufficient to stop it.”
Oct. 31, 2004, was different. Gonzalez was manning the machine gun on top of his Humvee at the front of a six-vehicle column. It was his job to keep an eye out for IEDs, but this one was buried in a flowerbed in a roundabout and well-hidden.
He didn’t see it. It exploded, No. 7, and proved far more effective than the first six. It tore through the Humvee, killed Lynch, seriously wounded another Marine and buried nearly a pound of metal — much of that the shredded armor — into Gonzalez’s left leg.
“I remember being conscious, trying to calm myself down,” he said. “I didn’t feel a thing. I fell asleep and woke up in Bethesda, Md.”
He didn’t feel anything when it happened, but he was overwhelmed with feelings when he woke up that had nothing to do with a missing leg.
Learning the ropes of the slopes
It’s not about vacation. It’s about getting out.
Sunday was somewhat of a frustrating experience for Denver’s Dave Hosick, who was trying to learn the ins and outs of a sit ski. He’d ticked off goals with ease Saturday, but the snow was different Sunday and, with several STARS volunteers lending a hand, he struggled to make it down the beginner runs at Steamboat Ski Area.
“It’s still progress,” he said optimistically.
The achievement, he said, wasn’t so much in what he accomplished during his stay but that he accomplished it. He lost the use of his legs and much of the strength in his upper body a decade ago when he took a hit during an on-base rugby game while in the U.S. Army.
The years since have been about learning how many things he still can do, including activities such as scuba diving and now skiing.
“So many things are taken away,” he said. “That’s so hard, but then there are groups like STARS that bring you out and show you it’s still possible.”
That wasn’t exactly the goal when Fredrick Solheim started taking veterans on river rafting trips in 2011. Solheim was inspired by a news report he saw featuring Litynski trying to snowboard in Vail.
He thought taking veterans for a four-day river trip would be a great way to give back. He had little idea the opportunity he was affording them.
“What came out was a much bigger thing,” Solheim said. “They’re their own best therapists, and they hooked up and built a camaraderie and were able to talk about their success and failures. It got guys who hadn’t been out of the house in five years out of the house.”
Solheim, a Boulder-based scientist who doesn’t have experience in the military, said 6,000 veterans each year commit suicide, and it’s that statistic that drove him to expand the programs through his organization, Warriors on Cataract. He wanted to give those veterans another opportunity to get outside, meet people going through similar experiences and accomplish something together.
He hooked up with Steamboat Ski Area, which was eager to provide a venue, generous sponsorship and an organization capable of running the event: STARS.
The event drew 23 veterans in its first year, and they were assisted by at least 20 ski and snowboard instructors each day.
“I’ve been conquering a lot of fears,” said Christy Green.
She traveled from Cheyenne, Wyo., with fellow cowboy state veteran Craig Kampbell. They tried skis Saturday, then were learning to ride ski bikes Sunday.
Kampbell spent seven years in the Army beginning in 1991. Green logged more than 20 years and now works with the Department of Veterans Affairs as a social worker.
“This weekend was about getting outside my comfort zone,” she said. “You get a feeling of ability because you can conquer something. You can become successful when you don’t always feel that sense of success, and that’s really important.”
Coming to terms
Gonzalez couldn’t shake the feeling he should have seen the IED, no matter how well it was hidden. At times, survivor’s guilt overwhelmed him.
He said Lynch, 25, was a good friend and a great athlete, competing collegiately at Duke University in baseball and swimming. An appreciation of music and Stevie Ray Vaughan helped bring them together.
“He was larger than life,” Gonzalez said. “He could have bench-pressed a car. ... He had his whole life in front of him.”
He visited Lynch’s family to try to help heal the wounds by spending the night in their North Carolina home, and he still spreads the word, ensuring his friends and family know the story of Matthew Lynch, a good guy who died on a terrible day.
That’s all helped him overcome the depression that set in after he woke up in Maryland. He’s been telling his story with American 300, an organization that reaches out to service members and that Steamboat’s Robi Powers helps organize.
“A lot of veterans have a hard time talking about it, about the friends they lost, and that’s what leads to post-traumatic stress,” Gonzalez said. “They think, ‘No one understands me because they’ve never been in my shoes, and I can’t tell them about it because they haven’t been in my shoes.’”
Events like STARS and Stripes help change that.
On Sunday, Gonzalez gave snowboarding all he had, and big falls eventually gave way to linked turns and full runs, the smile never leaving his face.
He looked like any other snowboarder, but he had a story of his own. They all did, but for one weekend, they shared experiences together. A couple of days at a ski resort is nice for anyone. For more than two dozen veterans, however, it meant more.
“This is way more than a vacation,” Gonzalez said. “It’s important mentally. It’s taking someone with a mindset of, ‘What am I going to do the rest of my life?,’ and changing that to ‘OK, I can do stuff.’
“It takes you from being crippled, and it turns you into a full person again.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com