PARK CITY — Casey Crabbe’s ski vacation will not include a single run on Park City’s world-famous powder.
But this week’s trip to Utah with her young family is life-changing in how it will buoy, inspire and heal her husband, a triple amputee who is learning to ski thanks to Team Semper Fi, Team America’s Fund, Park City Mountain Resort and the National Ability Center.
“It’s really nice to be able to see him get out and be able to do things that I can’t necessarily help him with,” Crabbe said of her husband, who is exhausted from three consecutive days of snowboard lessons, and is still somehow wrangling their service dog Gnome while wrestling their fearlessly curious almost 1-year-old daughter, Oakley Bo, while his wife discusses their reasons for attending the Big Mountain Ski and Snowboard Camp this week.
“So every time he goes out and does these activities, it sparks this enthusiasm for things that I know he used to love. He used to snowboard. So to be able to come and do this, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting a piece of my life back.’”
Justin Crabbe, 27, lost both of his legs above the knee and the thumb of his right hand and several fingers on his left hand when he stepped on a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in August of 2011 while serving in the Marine Corps.
The California man spent the week with 115 veterans and their families learning to ski. He said the experience was both challenging and liberating.
The former baseball player and snowboarder’s optimism is more practical than a defense mechanism against the darkness that can haunt veterans. He said he never spent much time ruminating over what he’d lost, in part because he was working so hard to reclaim his life.
“After I was well enough to get into my chair and go around the hospital, I was with the guys in the gym working out, and I thought, 'Maybe this is something that’s not going to be that bad,'” he said matter-of-factly, noting he's endured 75 surgeries in trying to heal his wounds. “I thought there would be adjustments, but I can still do things.”
In fact, it was the smallest minutia of life that bothered him most — like trying to button his shirt without a thumb.
“I just figured there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “(Complaining) is not going to make my legs grow back, so I might as well just accept it and move on, you know.”
B.J. Ganem lost his leg to a roadside bomb during an ambush of his unit. The former Marine staff sergeant said veterans and the issues they deal with post-service are often misunderstood.
“I think the veteran population (which is less than 2 percent of the population) gets a bad rap because people are afraid of us,” said Ganem, who was re-introduced to sports through the Semper Fi Fund after being injured in 2004. “There’s not much to understand other than we take individual responsibility more seriously than the rest of the civilian population. We know that the self is not more important than the group, which is something our society has lost over time.”
Ganem said what Semper Fi offered him wasn’t just new ways to compete or enjoy life. It was a way to find purpose and goals in his life. Now the senior manager of Community Outreach for the Semper Fi Fund, he said civilians could help veterans adjust to life after service if they were willing to understand there is no one-size-fits-all cure for the trauma most veterans experience.
“In our society, we’re always trying to figure out this mass production, right?” he said. “We want to find the Wal-mart of health care. It doesn’t work that way with trauma.”
He holds up his hands and spreads out his fingers.
“Everyone has fingerprints, right?” he said. “From a distance, they all look the same. But you get up close and you realize fingerprints have never been replicated in the history of humankind. That’s exactly how trauma is. We could be in the same car accident, and both of us would have completely different reactions.”
Which is why those who work for and volunteer with Semper Fi try to get to know each veteran and his or her specific issues. That way, they can help them find or reclaim both a productive and purposeful life.
“There’s no pill, there’s not one therapy,” Ganem said, “which is what we focus on here at Semper Fi. 'What’s going on with you?' Then we put the pieces back together. It’s more time consuming, it takes up a lot more resources, but it’s more effective.”
For Justin Crabbe, learning to ski with other veterans is both comforting and empowering. That’s because there is an ease that accompanies socializing with other veterans as they share experiences that are foreign to civilians.
“Even my wife,” Crabbe said. “I don’t really talk to my wife too much about it. I just like to keep it to myself. It’s just a personal thing.”
He talks about the toughest subjects with some of the men who served alongside him. They provide understanding with his struggles, while he offers comfort to those who were with him when he was injured, including two friends who blame themselves because a sweep with a metal detector and dog didn’t detect the bomb that nearly killed him.
He tries to explain why it wasn’t their fault, but the fact that his friends still struggle with guilt overwhelms him.
“I can’t,” he said, turning his head to regain control of his emotions. “I’m sorry, I can’t right now.”
The conversations on the slopes are raw and real, but so is the joy and the laughter as the veterans and their families discover new friends, new possibilities and new passions.
“Everybody has struggles,” Ganem said. “Life is part of it. I think we forget that it is an essential part of our being that we have a bit of obstacles, of struggles.”