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The ‘Miracle on the Mountainside’

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bill Roy, a 36 year veteran, stretched his legs out in front of a rolling fire and reflected on the magnitude of the day.

In all his years he has seen it all, but, as a first−timer at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, Roy experienced something totally out of his realm of experience, a phenomenon that’s become known as the “Miracle on the Mountainside.”

Roy once was a double−black−diamond skier, undaunted by even the most challenging ski slopes.

That was before a deployment to Afghanistan, where he was theater command sergeant major for the Office of Security Cooperation Afghanistan, which trains Afghan security forces.

Roy was visiting a forward operating base in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, in March 2005 to check on his troops when enemy mortar rounds and rockets from across the Pakistan border came raining on him and his troops. A 122 mm rocket lifted Roy off his feet, throwing him 25 yards away.

Roy knew he was in pain and had mobility problems, but had no idea how badly he’d been wounded. He returned to his headquarters in Kabul the next day and “sucked it up” for the remaining 90 days of his deployment.

It wasn’t until he redeployed to his mobilization station at Fort Benning, Ga., that a medical examination revealed just how much damage the blast had inflicted. His diagnosis: “disintegrated” vertebrae that caused “major paralysis,” two fractured kneecaps, two torn rotator cuffs, shrapnel in his head, traumatic brain injury and symptoms of post−traumatic stress disorder.

“I had some pretty major paralysis in the beginning, and they told me I would never walk again, but I did,” Roy said. After 16 surgeries, he now walks with a cane, but his doctors have warned him that a deteriorating back likely will put him back into a wheelchair for good within the next few years. The blast had exacerbated a previous back injury.

Roy still is in the Army, but expects to be medically retired after a medical board reviews his case.

As a third−generation soldier, his prognosis and the near−guarantee that he’ll no longer be able to serve in uniform sent him into a downward emotional spiral.

But during recent exercises, Roy put all that aside, along with his cane, and slipped into an adaptive sit−ski. Flanked by two volunteer ski instructors, he schussed down Snowmass Mountain, leaving a cloud of fresh powder snow in his wake.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever do something like that again,” Roy said, shaking his head as an ear−to−ear smile stretched across his face.

It was a pivotal moment, he said, part of a discovery process he’s experiencing at the winter sports clinic.

“This has been a turnaround for me that has changed my mental attitude for the better,” he said. “I’m laughing and having fun −− and believe me, I haven’t done that for a very long time.”

And while it’s helping to change his mental outlook, Roy said, the clinic is giving him a new understanding of what life can hold for him.

“I may be altered, but if I’ve got the right mental attitude, I don’t have to be disabled,” he said. “It’s all mind over matter. And if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Roy praised the winter sports clinic, an annual event jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans. Now in its 23rd year, it uses recreation as a rehabilitative tool for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.

As they learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and get introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, wheelchair fencing, sled hockey, snowmobiling, and sled hockey during a six−day program, the veterans’ eyes get opened to a whole new world of opportunity.

For many participants, like Roy, the experience can be life−changing.

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