Former Fort Carson bomb techs are like family
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Hijinks come with the territory for a tight-knit group of former Fort Carson bomb technicians.
Blind ice-climbing was part of a weeklong meet up. A wheelchair on a high-flying ropes course was another.
"I've heard us described as Alpha Nerds," said Aaron Hale, a retired Army staff sergeant and bomb technician who lost his eyes in an explosion in Afghanistan's Arghandab River valley. He was working on one bomb when another one that nobody spotted detonated.
Hale and other injured bomb technicians spent a week skiing and climbing and generally trying to break their necks courtesy of Return to Adventure, a group founded by soldiers from Fort Carson's 71st Ordnance Group.
Sponsored through donors, Adventure seeks to help the bomb experts reclaim the adrenaline and camaraderie that came with their military work. "In general, bomb techs are guys who live on the edge with everything they do," said Col. Dean Meinert, a former commander of Fort Carson's 242nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion.
Meinert helped set up the first Return to Adventure trip three years ago along with Command Sgt. Maj. Ted Taala.
Taala has retired from the Army and Meinert works at the Pentagon now, but they keep coming back to Breckenridge for the event.
They love to see the determination, resolve and fire return as wounded troops face challenges.
"It's about getting these guys back there, and bringing that personality trait back out to the front," Meinert said.
Phil Schmidt came to Breckenridge to see what drove his son, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Schmidt, a bomb technician who died in Afghanistan in 2012.
"It's helping with the healing," said Schmidt, who volunteered to help out for the week by doing everything from cooking to shooting videos.
"I'm not going to say there's not going to be weepy days," he said. "One of these guys choked me up the other day. He said my son would be proud of me."
The wounded bomb technicians don't spend their Breckenridge time focused on their injuries. They've heard enough about what they can't do.
On the slopes, Hale treated his injuries as a source of black humor.
"I got lucky," he said of the bomb that took his sight. "It only hit me in the head." Sitting in his wheelchair between ski runs, retired Army Staff Sgt. Steven Valyou explained about the dynamic between the bomb technicians.
"EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) is a tight-knit brotherhood," he said. "I'd almost say we're more family than regular family."
Military bomb technicians were a key component of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where insurgents relied on roadside bombs as their weapon of choice.
That also made them top targets.
Valyou was working on a bomb in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, when a sniper's bullet severed his spinal cord.
Valyou tore down Breckenridge slopes sitting atop a monoski and using his weight and pair of hand-held outriggers to turn.
"Everything is upper body strength," he said.
The skiing and climbing may look dangerous, but every step is overseen by volunteers from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, which helps those with disabilities hit the slopes.
This year, the wounded bomb technicians brought along their families. The plan was to have families see the value of adventure and spend a week talking about something other than doctor's visits and limitations.
"It's even better when you're doing it with your family," Value said.
Tonia Wade went to the event with her husband Jeff, a wounded bomb technician. She said the trip allowed her big family - four kids and two exchange students this year - to reconnect.
"It's really great because we spent so many years apart," she said. "My husband did eight deployments."
Taala, who earned his own Purple heart Medals for wounds oversees, said those who help organize the event and other volunteers get something out of it, too.
"It's a perspective thing," he said. "Any time I think about 'poor me', I think about these guys."