Iraq vet Heath Calhoun's new battle: To ski in Sochi Paralympics
For most of Paralympian Heath Calhoun’s peers, it’s just another day of training, a step closer to snagging the Olympic dream.
But for Calhoun, Veterans Day is both a blessing and a curse — a reminder of the rocket-propelled grenade that took both his legs and left his comrade dead in Iraq 10 years ago, but also a reminder of how he’s taken his life to new heights since then.
Nov. 7, 2003, was the day that Calhoun lost his limbs while serving as a squad leader in the 101st Airborne Division. Staff Sgt. Morgan E. Kennon, the unit’s noncommissioned officer, was killed, and another soldier lost an arm.
Now, Calhoun, 34, is competing for a slot on USA Paralympic team as an Alpine skier. And were it not for the injuries he sustained that day, Calhoun, who was introduced to the monoski five months into his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, might never have taken up the sport.
“It just kind of blossomed accidentally,” Calhoun told TODAY.com. “I was in a wheelchair. I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair, I wanted to get up. I wanted life [back] the way it was. At some point I accepted it was never going to be the way it was, but it could be different, and better, even. It was something that put me back on a level playing field with everybody else and from there, I just wanted to be good at it — I wanted to be the best.”
But it was a rough road, between the painful process of finding prosthetics that worked for him, learning to walk again, and keeping himself motivated. Calhoun, who was born and raised in the South and had only skied a handful of times prior to his injury, decided to just take it one day at a time. He cites a poster he was given while at Walter Reed as a continuing source of inspiration.
“It’s a famous picture, of a stork eating a frog, but the frog has his hand out, choking the stork, with the words, ‘Never give up.’ I keep that picture, it’s still in my room now, and it has kind of become a mantra for me,” he said.
Calhoun’s positivity is striking and infectious, and he’s even got a sense of humor about being an amputee — his Twitter handle is @LeglessHeath.
“I couldn’t obviously pick what happened to me in my life,” said the father of three. “I had the opportunity to sit at home and be upset, be disappointed with the way life worked out for me. But I felt like I had too much to live for, too much that I could do, instead of feeling sorry for myself. So I chose to look at it in a positive light, and it’s led me down a wonderful road.”
That road led Calhoun to be the Paralympic team’s flag bearer in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, which only made him hungrier for more. Calhoun, who has volunteered with the Wounded Warrior Project in the past and still works with some military veterans through the prosthetics company he represents, hopes his story offers some encouragement — but warns that it’s not easy. Even he still has his down days.
“I wanted to quit with prosthetics. I wanted to quit with struggling when I was sick at the beginning with the infections and limb loss,” he said. “There are even times when I’ve wanted to quit skiing. But that’s something that I set out to do, and I just continue to push. I can always quit tomorrow. As long as you move on with that, you can always quit tomorrow. You take it a day at a time, a step at a time, and you eventually get where you want to be.”
For Veterans Day, Calhoun usually gets together with people from his unit, meeting at their fallen comrade’s gravesite.
“We celebrate Kennon’s life and we remember the team that we were,” he said. “Things are different now, but we’re still a team, and that helps us heal.”
But this year he’s missing the 10-year anniversary, to focus on training in Colorado for the Winter Games. But his military team, and the lessons he learned while serving, are never far from his mind.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between my military service and ski racing,” Calhoun said. “They’ve both given me an opportunity to represent my country to its fullest, whether it was on the battlefield, or the battlefield that will be the Sochi Paralympics in March for me.”
Meena Duerson contributed to this report.