Before taking a couple of runs with Kyle Moxley, one of the first noticeable things setting him apart from the average skier is that he carries only a single ski pole. And then on the ski slope, as he tucks into effortless turns at high speed, it becomes plain: Moxley doesn’t need another pole.
On Thursday, the sixth-ranked alpine para-skier in the United States discussed his meteoric rise — Moxley started skiing just four years ago and is a spot away from making the U.S. Paralympics team in adaptive, stand-up skiing — and how the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village has helped him overcome a roadside bomb in Iraq that nearly killed him and left him with little use of his right hand.
The clinic, organized by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), wrapped up its 33rd year Friday. It drew over 400 participants and some 700 volunteers this week, to an event that allowed Moxley and others to simply get some turns on local ski trails and mentor other veterans, be it on the slopes, in a kayak, on a hockey rink or an ice sheet to learn the finer points of curling.
“The DAV and the VA have been together for over 30 years on this event,” said John Kleindienst, national director of voluntary services for Disabled American Veterans.
The goal, he said, is to encourage veterans to get involved, or re-involved, in sports, community and the like, predicated on their level of injury or injuries.
“When servicemen or -women are injured, before their injury, they are at their top level of performance,” Kleindienst said. “And after their injury, depending on the level of injury, it may be difficult for them to think they can get out and accomplish something like skiing.”
Another aim, in the high-altitude environs, is to show they can do something healthy and perhaps witness, and consult with, say, a Vietnam veteran who has overcome disabilities to ski down local slopes, and/or take to the rivers in a kayak or with a fishing pole, or a rink with a curling stone.
“It’s the network of friends and opportunities that each of these individuals has a chance to come into contact with,” Kleindienst said.
From an Iraqi village to the Village Express
In March 2004, Moxley, an Army infantry specialist, was manning a .50-caliber machine gun on the lead vehicle of a patrol in Fallujah, Iraq. He and his fellow soldiers were passing out candy and soccer balls to children and chatting them up. Minutes later, a roadside bomb 8 feet away was set off — “It was a good hit,” said Moxley, adding that small-arms fire followed. Atop the vehicle and exposed, he took the brunt, with shrapnel shredding the upper right side of his body.
“It was gnarly times,” he recounted on the Village Express lift, describing battlefield surgery that involved replacing a badly injured artery in his arm with one from his groin.
He described how his colleagues barreled through the center of Fallujah to get him to a helicopter. He then was flown to a U.S. military base in Germany for stabilization and additional treatment.
That and subsequent surgeries saved his life. Moxley, who has little ability to use his nerve-damaged wrist and hand, and thus no use for another ski pole, describes his odyssey from Iraq to local mountains in a low-key manner. Regardless, it is harrowing.
Moxley had a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and limb-salvage rehabilitation.
One of his first thoughts: “What’s the first challenge I can overcome?”
He became a special-education aide in a school, and the students he worked with helped him learn how to be patient.
“If you can’t deal with kids, you can’t deal with life,” Moxley said. “Seeing them, at such a young age, dealing with injuries, with me coming into my injuries, it was like, you have a long battle and I have a long battle. If they can do it, I can do it.”
Moxley, who has earned a master’s degree in business management, learned to ski through the winter sports clinic in Snowmass — and he quickly blew by the limits of his instructor.
Medically retired from the military, he was raised mostly in Alaska and now splits time between Paonia and Winter Park, where he trains for months at a time. Moxley, who has been clocked unofficially at 72 mph on skis, is also set to train in Argentina this summer.
Skiing, along with VA support groups and psychiatrists, has helped greatly psychologically and physically, Moxley said.
“Freedom,” he said of what the sport offers him. “Even just for that minute, it seems like your life flashes before your eyes at different times on a speed course. It’s like you’re battling nature with every inch of movement on the snow with your skis.
“I want to learn all about it and every movement,” he said. “I do like going fast. … I’m totally focused on what I’m doing and what I need to be doing.
“The outside is gone.”