Amputee vets on the slopes: 'They find their new normal here'

March 22, 2013 at 12:25 PM ET

I first met David Rozelle at the bottom of Vail, Colo. mountain almost 10 years ago.

At the time his rank was Captain and he’d just returned home from Iraq where he left part of one leg behind.

He was taking part in a program called "Vail Veterans," where amputees from America’s conflicts overseas are invited to come learn how to ski.

Story: Vail Veterans get wounded warriors moving -- in the snow

Rozelle was and is a real inspirational kind of guy. Lots of bravado, quick to smile, big hand shake…even bigger laugh. You can tell immediately he was born to lead; and he told me way back then, even as he was tipping over on his small "ski-sled," that he wasn’t going to let the partial loss of his limb deter him one iota.

He hasn’t. Rozelle is now a Lieutenant Colonel.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the program and once again the mountain is populated with young men and women who, frankly, stand out. Not only because they are missing an arm or a leg, or both; but also because they are up on the chairs and tearing down the slopes, smiling from ear to ear. They will not be deterred even when their prosthetics hurt or they take an embarrassing fall. This program has offered them something many thought they’d probably never experience again: real physical freedom.

“The one thing about skiing” says Colonel Greg Gadson, “Once I’m up here on the mountain I’m on equal footing with everybody else.” Not bad for a muscular bear of a fellow who simply screams down the slopes on his monoski-sled-type-device.

Gadson has no legs. He left them overseas, too.

“When we first started this I thought it was just about skiing and snowboarding,” said the Vail resident who started it all, Cheryl Jensen.

“That we’d just bring ‘em here, have ‘em learn to do some form of adaptive skiing or adaptive snowboarding. But what we realized is there’s a lot more healing that takes place here. On and off the mountain.”

Rozelle, who now works with the Vail Veterans program, stands at altitude and looks out over the picture-postcard scenery of the back bowls. He too was once a nervous newbie trying to regain self-confidence and a sense of purpose. He wants to share his success on the slopes and elsewhere with a new group of kids who’ve made tremendous sacrifices.

“They get in this program and they find their new normal here.”