For veterans, STARS camp enriches life
Major Jeremiah Ellis spent much of the past seven years trying every way possible to pretend his back didn’t hurt.
But, of course, it did hurt. It still hurts.
Then a captain leading a company of Army Rangers, Ellis was trying to guide his unit through the Arghandab River Valley in southern Afghanistan in 2010. Fire was coming from ridges on either side of his convoy and from behind. It had been all day, disabling vehicles and forcing Ellis’s Rangers to leap from the relative safety of their armored transports to attach tow bars to escorting Canadian tanks.
The journey was so long, the fire so intense they eventually ran out of tanks to do the towing and had to leave one mine-resistant, ambush-protected
vehicle, or MRAP, behind to be destroyed by a pair of American 500-pound bombs.
Ellis was at the center of the firestorm. He was riding in his unit’s command vehicle, its importance made obvious the various antennae and communication equipment that bristled from the roof.
It was a target through the 16-hour ordeal, riddled with bullets. Finally, one RPG impacted hard just behind Ellis’s seat, bringing the vehicle to halt.
It didn’t take Ellis’s life. It shattered three vertebrae in his back, but he didn’t evacuate for surgery or any sort of more in-depth care.
“I’d never had an injury I couldn’t overcome by gritting my teeth,” he said. “Everyone in the infantry, if you’ve been in more than a decade, you have some serious injury you hide so you can keep doing your job.”
He did keep doing his job, and now, seven years, he can admit that, yes, his back hurts.
Nothing he did this week in Steamboat Springs changed that, nevertheless, Ellis, still active in the Army, said the trip helped ease a pain even greater than his back.
Ellis relaxed Sunday in the shade, under a canopy on the banks of Stagecoach Reservoir 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs in rural Routt County.
It was the end of a long week for Ellis and half a dozen other veterans with disabilities participating in the STARS and Stripes Western Adventure camp, which wrapped up a five day run in the Steamboat Springs area with Sunday’s trip to the lake.
They’d ridden horses, first at the Romick Rodeo Arena in downtown Steamboat Springs and later on a trail near town. They took a trip to the Love Climbing Adventures climbing gym in Steamboat, then Saturday tackled the STARS Biking the Boat charity bicycle ride. Sunday, it was out to Stagecoach for time buzzing around the lake on personal watercraft, floating on it with stand-up paddleboards and skimming across it on a sailboat.
“One week of this is worth six months of visiting a therapist,” said John Supon, a Denver-based Marine veteran who was injured in a 2006 truck crash. The camp was the work of Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports and the Warfighter program with Disabled Sports USA.
STARS has offered similar camps for about five years.
“The hope is we can get more interest and increase the services we have for the veterans in Routt County,” said Brett Maul, who took over as STARS program manager in February. “The benefits of these camps are positive and very apparent. Serving these guys, because of where they’ve put themselves, is a very special thing.”
There’s something about the camps that brings the best out of the veterans. They often come with family, this year from Denver and the Front Range, as well as, in several cases, from Hawaii.
They also often leave with plenty of friends, people who understand the complex mix of emotions that come with a disability. The activities help, too, proving they can still do things that, in their darkest hours, seemed impossible. Thus, this week, there was more to riding a horse than taking horse rides, more to competing in a race than crossing a finish line.
Ellis takes 16 different prescriptions every day, “a fistful with every meal,” he said, and they only help so much.
Simply being at the lake Sunday, however, did just as much to heal his body and his life.
It took him years to accept he was injured at all, a denial that started within moments of that RPG slamming into the back of his vehicle on a dusty, bloody road in Afghanistan.
He was three months into a 15-month deployment, and he’d finally ascended to the job he’d dreamed of: a captain in the Army leading a company of Rangers, 160 troops under his command.
After the hit, he could still walk. He could still talk. He wasn’t about to accept the medical evacuation advised by two different doctors back at camp.
Even now, he has no regrets.
“We made a real difference,” he said. “We didn’t just go around playing whack-a-mole, killing the Taliban and counting how many bad guys we got. My company, we built a school. We built canals and helped them construct a marketplace. We brought some real security, so even if it only lasted for the amount of time we were there, they had some peace.”
Last he was able to check, more than six years after he shattered his back working for it, the school was still open.
After sustaining his injury, he spent the following 12 months wincing his way through patrols, clenching his teeth and burying the pain.
He fought through it in the short term, but paid a price in the long term.
He was aggressively active before the injury, climbing mountains, running races and chasing adventure wherever it took him. He kept up that lifestyle after his return from Afghanistan, too, and was scuba diving near Borneo in the southeast Pacific when his back finally gave in, his spinal cord rupturing.
“I kept thinking, ‘If I’m strong enough in my mind, I can get over this,’” he said. “I finally realized it was unlike anything else in my life, and you couldn’t overcome it with more hard work and dedication.”
He’s endured three surgeries since, none of which have gone particularly well.
Another surgery coming, he hopes, in October, but, finally accepting his back is hurt, he’s resigned to the pain being there the rest of his life.
He’s not, however, resigned to life in a bed, and it’s camps such as the STARS and Stripes event in Steamboat, activities like riding horses and sailboats, that helped lead him away from a dark place.
“Before I was injured, I was full-on into adventure sports, full-tilt engaged in everything and anything I could do,” he said. “When all that got taken away, it strips you of your identity. That was the hardest thing, harder than the physical recovery.
“These were things I could still do, and it was a good, new perspective change. It might not be the exciting stuff I wish it was doing. It’s not my old life, but it gives you something worth having a life for.”
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