Wounded Iraq vets tackle wilderness


Group of amputees recuperate with a little rock climbing

ASPEN – Their tales are about how lives are irrevocably changed in an instant, without warning.

An insurgent running around the corner and launching a rocket-propelled grenade. Or motoring along in a Humvee caravan on night patrol when a suicide car bomber hits head-on at 90 mph. Or the blinding flash of a gasoline accident.

These were a few of the stories of Iraq war veterans visiting the Aspen area for rest and relaxation this summer.

Whether it is relaxing to tackle a five-story rock face on Independence Pass with an artificial leg, as a group was doing one recent morning, is, of course, debatable. But this vacation is about facing up to….


challenges as much as it is about sitting poolside, which the veterans did at the Hot Springs Pool in Glenwood Springs.

Nearly all of the 30 veterans on the trip organized by Challenge Aspen lost limbs while fighting in Iraq.

“We see the benefits that our program has upon people with disabilities,” said Sarah Williams, Challenge Aspen program director.

The group offers year-round recreation to disabled people from around the country, but visits by the soldiers is a new program. Similar to a program at Vail Mountain, the first group of Iraq veterans from all branches of the military arrived last winter for skiing, snowboarding and other snow sports.

Activities like those, along with rock climbing and whitewater rafting in the summer, help the soldiers and their families settle back into society, and they also “really show them the possibilities,” Williams said.

One good hand

Sgt. Orlando Gill, 32, of Bronx, N.Y., easily handled the knots on the rope while rock climbing. His climbing experience comes from rappelling out of helicopters, he said.

“Even when you get started, it’s a challenge, and you don’t want to quit – it’s exhilarating,” he said. “You have to get used to the part you only got one leg, so you have to see how you can lock your leg into the hole.”

Gill did two tours in Iraq with the Army. During a six-hour afternoon patrol on a street in Ramadi on Oct. 2, “I kinda turned to my left and the guy just came down to his knees real quick and shot the RPG.”

The militant was not aiming at Gill, he said, but at two U.S. vehicles nearby.

“I raised my weapon to start opening fire, but he nailed me before I could start shooting,” he said.

Incredibly, after Gill fell to the street, he got back up and fired at the insurgent to prevent another attack. “He ran,” Gill said simply.

The rocket grenade hit him just below the knee, tearing through his right leg before blowing up farther down the road behind him.

Gill is still in the Army. He said he’s trying to become a physical therapist.

The trip to the Rockies was helping the soldiers “get back into our groove,” he said.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ian Lennon was taking a break from the climbing. The Long Island, N.Y. resident of Long Island said he made it about halfway up – not bad considering he was climbing using one good hand.

The fingers of his right hand are fused together, and his face and head are badly scarred by third-degree burns. Lennon was injured in Kuwait 13 days before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. He was filling up a vehicle’s fuel tank when the accident happened.

“We didn’t know that [in temperatures higher than] 100 degrees, diesel turns into like a vapor,” he said. “A spark set it off, and I just went up into flames.”

He was airlifted to Germany and then back to the states with severe burns on 33 percent of his body, mostly to his face and arms.

“This is my first time here,” he said, looking at the wilderness around him, “having fun.”

A rock to conquer

Ron Rash, lead guide for Aspen Alpine Guides and a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, said he jumped at the chance to teach the vets to rock-climb.

“It is so amazing being with these folks,” he said, holding a belay rope near the rock face. “It’s so motivating, personally, and inspiring to see what they’re doing. This is incredible, especially [considering] where they’ve been.”

The group was doing great on a challenging area that required fixed lines to simply reach the climbing wall, he said.

Tim Boots, a specialist in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and his girlfriend, Emily Nichelson, were both awed by Independence Pass.

“We spent most of the morning just sitting out on a rock here staring at the scenery,” Boots said. The only place that compares is the Alps, he said.

He was hit around 10 p.m., April 7 by a suicide car bomber as his convoy of Hummers escorted a fuel tanker to a small base in north-central Iraq.

“It was dark, we were coming around a curve and he had his lights off,” he said of the bomber. “They estimated he was going between 90 and 100 mph. He was going so fast he hit us before we realized it.”

An incendiary grenade that was on the dashboard blew up, as did the shotgun shells on his tank commander’s vest. The explosion blew all four doors off the vehicle and knocked the crew out of the truck. His foot was amputated at a field hospital in Mosul while he was in a coma that lasted nearly a week.

“It seemed like a while before I realized that my foot was actually missing,” Boots said. “When I first came out of the coma, I was pretty out of it.”

As nice as the West is, he and Nichelson were excited to get back to Pennsylvania – “We have to leave this trip early because he’s getting his Purple Heart on Friday,” Nichelson said.

But his immediate concern was finding climbing shoes. There was a rock to conquer and a new life to begin.


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