Wounded veterans go to extremes in sports program

Carlos Gomez was driving in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan with a U.S. Army convoy in 2011 when it came under attack by the Taliban. In a flash, a bomb exploded. The IED left him gravely injured and killed his friend.

Two months later, he woke up from a coma in a military hospital in San Antonio. A sergeant piled on the bad news: Gomez had a fractured neck and an amputated leg that had been partially blown off during the blast. The other was barely hanging on.

Soon after, his wife left him and took their two children, Isaac and Aaron. He struggled emotionally confronting the reality of his new life. He thought about killing himself – not once, but several times, he said.

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“Everything came to a complete stop in my life. I was very dark,” said Gomez, 28, who joined the U.S. Army in 2009 and fought in the Middle East as an infantry soldier. “I couldn’t do anything and I didn’t like the way I looked. I hated it.”

Then, a lifeline. He heard through a friend about No Boundaries, a program that takes combat-wounded veterans to Colorado to do extreme adaptive sports like snowmobiling, skiing and zip-lining.

Combat-wounded veteran Carlos Gomez, 28, at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in 2011. He struggled emotionally confronting the reality of his new life. He thought about killing himself – not once, but several times, he said.

Combat-wounded veteran Carlos Gomez, 28, at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in 2011. He struggled emotionally confronting the reality of his new life. He thought about killing himself – not once, but several times, he said. (Courtesy of Carlos Gomez)

For Gomez and many other amputees like him, the trip is an outlet. It is a mission of sorts that requires tough physical and mental training on the mountains and off the battlefields. But if they can succeed here, they will at home, too.

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The program is the brainchild of Molly Raymond, who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident in Virginia that nearly took her life. She refers to July 3, 2004, as her “alive day.”

Like Gomez, Raymond had to re-learn to do basic tasks: Drive, cook, walk. She could barely speak and lost all short-term memory. She had been an avid windsurfer and loved the outdoors. She mountain biked, rock-climbed and enjoyed working out, she said.

“Before the accident I was extremely outdoorsy. But I lost pretty much all of that,” she said recently from her Virginia home. “I had just bought a new sail. I used it once.”

Despite years of physical and occupational therapy, her doctors were blunt. You may never be able to ski or run again, she remembers them saying. Still, she was resilient.

“That lit a fire in me,” she said. “All I wanted was to be back on the mountain.”

She soon discovered the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Colorado, which bills itself as “one of the largest outdoor therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports agencies in the world.”

In 2011, she defied doctors and began skiing again with the help of her instructors. This time on a ski bike. She took many more ski trips after that and during one of them she had an urgent sense of purpose, she said.

She told her instructors she knew NSCD could help combat-wounded veterans, like Gomez, the way it had helped her.

Carlos Gomez, a combat-wounded veteran, kayaking down the Colorado River with No Boundaries in 2013. For Gomez and many other amputees like him, the trip is a mission of sorts that requires tough physical and mental training on the mountains and off the battlefields.

Carlos Gomez, a combat-wounded veteran, kayaking down the Colorado River with No Boundaries in 2013. For Gomez and many other amputees like him, the trip is a mission of sorts that requires tough physical and mental training on the mountains and off the battlefields.

“Seven years ago, I could barely speak,” she recalled. “Now, I’m doing double black diamonds and learning to race. I am rock climbing. I’m kayaking down the Colorado river. It’s an incredible place.”

Together with her husband, a retired Marine, they spread the word and began collecting donations from local businesses and community leaders. The response was immediate and the program was formed in 2013.

Twice a year, No Boundaries sponsors weeklong retreats for 10 combat wounded veterans. It costs about $2,000 to $2,500 per person to attend, depending on the season, said Diane Eustace, marketing director at NSCD.

“I’ve seen veterans in that before place, but once they start doing programs with us you can see their confidence build. It’s a complete 360 change for a lot of them,” Eustace said. “Molly’s enthusiasm for wanting to help others is contagious.”

The program’s ninth trip to Winter Park, Colo., is scheduled for later this month. It’s grueling for the veterans, Raymond said. But many quickly become friends.

Instructors encourage wounded veterans to use their military training to challenge their bodies and limitations, Raymond said. They applaud when they succeed, get up again when they don’t and celebrate victories, big and small, she said.

“What they get out of that week is more than they get out of therapy in two years,” Raymond said. “It means so much to me to be able to help others.”

Doctors told Molly Raymond she would never ski again after suffering a traumatic brain injury from a car accident in Virginia. She skied again with her husband Mike Raymond in 2011 at the National Sports Center for the Disabled.

Doctors told Molly Raymond she would never ski again after suffering a traumatic brain injury from a car accident in Virginia. She skied again with her husband Mike Raymond in 2011 at the National Sports Center for the Disabled. (Courtesy of Molly Raymond)

For Gomez, the journey to recovery took mental determination. Even on his first trip to Winter Park, he questioned his abilities. One of his legs was in a prosthetic, the other in braces. Mountain climbing? Impossible. Biking? Forget about it.

But he was determined and turned to his family and Raymond for inspiration. He was also inspired by the movie "Forrest Gump."

He pictured bullies making fun of his braces and his prosthetic. But he pushed himself to mountain climb and he did. Gomez never wore his leg braces again, he said. He also stopped feeling sorry for himself.

“I don’t let excuses define me,” Gomez said. “I realized I don’t have to be afraid anymore. My body is strong enough. I can do extreme sports and I can do anything.”

He still wakes up from nightmares and he suffers from survivor’s guilt. He mourns the loss of his friend every day. But he no longer considers himself handicapped, thanks in large part to No Boundaries, he said.

Today, he works for the Army Corps of Engineers and has full custody of his kids. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 2011 and was medically discharged two years later.

But he never forgets the darker days and often uses it as a teaching moment for his kids.

“Look at your dad. I might be missing one leg but that is not stopping me from being a parent and taking care of you guys,” he tells his children. “If you have heart in something, you’re not going to stop, you know. My kids, they are my heart.”                      

If you would like to donate money or find out more information about the organization, visit noboundariesmilitary.org.