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Blind Iraq war vets learn to ski

  • Story Highlights
  • Ivan Castro was blinded by a mortar blast in Iraq in 2006; now, he's skiing
  • Organization in Idaho is helping blinded war vets experience new heights
  • "We want them to do things they've never tried before," program director says
  • One blind veteran says the experience is all about "trust"
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By Rusty Dornin
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SUN VALLEY, Idaho (CNN) -- Ivan Castro, a former Army Ranger, gingerly makes his way down the ski slopes, guided by instructors down a snow-packed Idaho mountain. For this Iraq war veteran, his goal is simple: make it from the ski lift down to the bottom of the mountain without falling.

Ivan Castro, a blind war vet, skis down the slope: "You know when you're blinded, you don't know what life is."

Castro is blind -- the result of a mortar exploding just five feet away from him. After he lost his sight, he says, he "never thought" he'd be able to do something like skiing again. Less than two years later, he is accomplishing a feat he never dreamed possible.

"You know when you're blinded, you don't know what life is. You don't know what's out there," Castro said.

Castro and nine other Iraqi vets blinded in the Iraq war were in Sun Valley for the Sun Valley Adaptive Sports program last month. The program is offered to anyone with disabilities, but there is a special program for veterans wounded in Iraq. Video Watch blind vets learn to ski »

Most who come to the weeklong program, offered in both winter and summer, have lost limbs or suffered head injuries. This is the first time that a group of visually impaired vets have taken part in the snow sport camp.

"We want them to do things they've never tried before or try things again that they used to do," says Tom Iselin, the executive director of the program. "A lot of these guys come from Special Forces. They are used to being pushed. Because they are used to being pushed and they want to be pushed, they want to exceed the limitations that society has placed on them."

The goal is to give the wounded vets "courage and hope, so that they can take that back -- those skills -- to improve their relationships," Iselin says.

According to the Blinded Veterans Association, more than 100 service members have been blinded in Iraq and another 247 lost sight in one eye. The organization says more eyes are saved in this war due to the increased response time to care for the wounded. In World War II, it took an average of 36 to 48 hours before a wounded soldier underwent eye surgery. Today, the average is less than an hour, according to the Blinded Veterans Association.

In Castro's case, he was providing sniper support for fellow soldiers in Yusufiya, Iraq, in September 2006. Suddenly the whine of a mortar echoed above him. It landed five feet from Castro and exploded. His jaw was crushed, his arm broken and his lung collapsed. Two fellow soldiers were killed in the attack.

The blast pulverized Castro's left eye and after surgery failed to save his remaining eye, Castro was blind.

It takes a big leap of faith for someone who is blind to ski, snowboard or even ice skate for the first time. It's all about trust, says John Crabtree, another of the blinded veterans in Idaho.

Crabtree tried ice skating for the first time and found the key was "the trust that you put into those that are helping you instruct you."

"The challenge is to concentrate on what they're telling me."

A senior naval petty officer who specialized in explosive ordinance, Crabtree was blinded by shrapnel from a makeshift bomb in Anbar province on February 12, 2006. He was asking a fellow sailor across the room for a tool when the blast went off. The sailor, Nicholas Wilson, was killed in the explosion.

Crabtree says it's been a struggle to get back to this point, but he wants to be independent again.

"On top of that, I think I can speak for everyone else -- we're glad to be alive," he says.

The service members can bring their spouses or a close family member as part of the therapy. Marshell Crabtree says her husband's family is amazed that he's trying all the winter sports. "They're excited about John and everything he is experiencing and doing and breaking all the rules. It's just really exciting watching him," she says.

On the ice, Crabtree struggles to get the hang of it. "I figured because I can ski pretty well, I'd rip it up but, man, I just don't know about this," he says.

His skating instructor Lacy Marsh encourages him, "Once you find your balance, you find you can glide a little farther."

Back on the slopes, instructor Jim McCabe leads Castro from the lift. "Follow my voice" he tells him. By the third day, Castro accomplished what he set out to do: He got off the lift and skied down the hill without falling.


"It's been 16 months," he says "and slowly I've come to learn the things I'm able to do visually impaired -- all the things that are out there, people that are willing to help and willing to put up programs like this one to motivate you and get you off the couch and get you to be an active person in society."

Watching how the veterans progress never fails to move Iselin. "We want them to leave with a huge smile and when they leave say, 'Wow, that's the most fun I've had in years!'" E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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