After fighting wars, some men are never at peace. Joel Hunt, 35, was one of them.
That is, until he tried a sport he thought was for rich snobs: alpine skiing. On the slopes, he felt "free as a bird."
Now Hunt, who battled bureaucracy in his country long after he fought for it, is representing the United States in the Sochi Winter Paralympics. He is believed to be the first to do so with traumatic brain injury.
He suffers from double vision but sees his destiny clearly. The Denver resident said he heeds the advice of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning: do your best and let the scoreboard take care of itself. On Saturday Hunt will race over the same giant slalom course where American Ted Ligety won a gold medal last month in the Olympics.
"When I go to Russia, I'm not going to be thinking about podium," said Hunt, who grew up in Indiana. "The only thing I'm going to be thinking about is doing a good job, skiing well, finishing. The way I look at it, I've already won."
Every disabled athlete has overcome adversity, but Hunt more so than most.
He was subjected to an estimated 100 explosions during three deployments to Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart for his war-related injuries. He endured paralysis in his left leg, a protracted struggle for medical benefits, depression, divorce, tragedy and more injury. For him, skiing has been more than life-changing.
"For Joel, I think it did save his life," said his aunt, Mary Brown, 68, of Freeport, Ill.
Hunt's role in Iraq was to save others' lives. He enlisted in the Army after graduating from Kokomo's Northwestern High School, believing he had few other options. He located and detonated explosives along the roadway between Baghdad and the airport.
Head injuries from mortar attacks or roadside bombs were common in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to Department of Defense figures, there have been 168,309 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Army since 2000. Also, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported the number of male veterans under 30 who commit suicide increased 44 percent from 2009 to 2011.
A roadside blast June 17, 2005, effectively ended Hunt's military service, although he said his brain injury cannot be traced to a single incident. He recounts his experience regularly in a speech, "My Life From the Ski Lift." He acknowledged that he was angry at society "and hated my life." Seeing families of friends who had been killed contributed to survivor guilt.
"I wished that I had died in Iraq rather than face the difficulties of my situation," he has said.
After being discharged from the Army, he met a woman through a dating website, and they soon wed. They moved to Denver to be near a VA hospital, but the marriage didn't last.
Hunt was alone, confined to a wheelchair and immobilized by gloom. His aunt said he sat at home, unable even to shop for groceries. His parents, David, a Vietnam War veteran, and Judy, left their home in Deming, N.M., to care for their son.
Hunt's plight came to the attention of Andrew Pogany, then an investigator with the National Veterans Legal Services Program and now co-director of the Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group. A medical retirement entitled Hunt to a 10 percent disability rating, a sign the government was "trying to low-ball him," according to Pogany.
Hunt was taking 15 medications to treat memory loss, headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts – all symptoms of what Pogany thought could be undiagnosed TBI. Moreover, Pogany said, veterans endure betrayal trauma, an element of post-traumatic stress disorder in which they feel abandoned as "inconvenient truths." Pogany, a former Special Forces soldier, intervened on behalf of Hunt, who ultimately began getting necessary treatment. The investigator said not all outcomes are like Hunt's.
"We also have cases that end up in suicides before we can get to them fast enough," Pogany said. "That's the sad reality of what the system does to guys like Joel Hunt. They come to a point where they're just done."
Instead, Hunt discovered a new beginning.
In December 2008, his parents persuaded him to attend a three-day ski camp at Breckenridge, Colo., for veterans with TBI. He didn't want to go, but the experience was transformative. For the first time in his life, he said, he felt independent.
"It makes you feel alive," Hunt said. "Nothing could touch me, and I could do anything that I wanted to do."
He asked if he could ever become an adaptive ski racer and was told he was too old. His response? He skied 125 days that first winter, wearing a brace on his leg, and commuted an estimated 80,000 miles to the mountains and back in his Chevrolet truck.
Newly energized, he contacted the Challenged Athletes Foundation, whose Operation Rebound funds training for disabled military personnel and others. The program awarded him $3,500, and Ogasaka Ski supplied skis, which cost more than $1,000 per pair.
Operation Rebound wasn't envisioning medals, said senior manager Nico Marcolongo. It was an investment in a veteran.
"He paid a big price," Marcolongo said, "and we owe it to him."
Hunt impressed coaches with his devotion to the sport. Financial support usually goes to skiers that can be classified as elite, and Hunt was nowhere near that.
"When you suck," he said, "nobody wants to help."
Operation Rebound did, and Hunt did rebound. By the end of the 2009-10 season, he was ranked among the nation's top 10 adaptive skiers.
He achieved that despite the leg paralysis. And instead of seeing one slalom gate, he said, he saw three. He counts to himself – 1, 2 ,3 – before starting a turn, hoping he does so in time. He used to go the wrong way, he said, and it takes him longer to remember a course than his peers.
There is a recklessness about Hunt's skiing, something that can be attributed to his disability and zeal. One of his Paralympic teammates, Marine veteran Jon Lujan, has witnessed the Indiana skier's gung-ho style.
"I think he goes for it a little bit more, and he pushes the edge. That's what makes him successful," said Lujan, the U.S. flag bearer at Friday's opening ceremony. "He doesn't really have much fear."
Before Hunt dared dream about the Paralympics, two setbacks nearly did wipe him out. In 2011, the day before he was remarried, to the former Kassie Turgeon, he learned his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And in a Jan. 11, 2012, race in New Hampshire, he clipped a gate and fractured a vertebra.
A month later, Judy Hunt pinned a Purple Heart on her son in ceremony at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Commerce City, Colo. But that October, she died, leaving her son without his strongest source of encouragement.In November 2012, Hunt was rehabbing from his injury. More painful was the process of sifting through his mother's possessions. Then he came across a savings account labeled: Russia. If her son was going, she was going.
Mom believed in her son before he believed in himself. Now he had to make it.
"That's when a fire lit right under my butt."
Despite such a long layoff from skiing, he built his point total over a series of races and merited selection to the U.S. team.
Changes in Hunt are "like night and day," his aunt said, and not because he made it to the Paralympics. When he returned from Iraq, his speech was slurred. The more he skied, the more his diction improved. Fifteen medications are now two.
On a daily basis, the closest figure to Hunt is his service dog, Barrett, a golden retriever/Labrador mix rescued from an animal shelter. The dog helps stabilize Hunt's gait and waits for him at the finish line. Barrett is "the only dog in the world who's able to fold laundry," Hunt asserted.
Hunt will be on his own in the giant slalom, and he is unlikely to leave Russia with a medal.
He lacks experience at speeds the skiers will reach and in performing on such a stage. Hunt lacks ski experience, period.
"For a kid to come from Central Indiana, on the flattest ground you'll ever see, to be a downhill skier, it's almost funny," said Dan Armstrong, athletic director and longtime coach and teacher at Northwestern High.
Hunt is the first athlete from his school to be in the Paralympics or Olympics, and he is donating his Ralph Lauren-designed Team USA sweater to Northwestern.
Armstrong called Hunt a hero. Hunt said he isn't. But he isn't a statistic, either.
He said if his regular Joe story can inspire others, he is eager to share it. Hunt has already defied all odds, climbing from the bottom to a mountaintop.