Army Veteran Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun, also an
alpine skier, competed in the Men’s Sitting Slalom, the Super-G, Super
Combined, and Sitting Giant Slalom events, earning a silver medal in the
Sitting Giant Slalom at the 2014 winter games in Sochi.
Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun earned respect for the U.S. military at a young age. His father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War II. In 1999, Heath decided to carry on their dedication to the military and service to the country by enlisting in the U.S. Army.
He completed his Airborne Ranger and infantry training in Fort Benning, Georgia and was deployed to Iraq where he was assigned as a Squad Leader for the famed 101st Airborne Division.
It was there, in 2003, that a rocket-propelled grenade hit his convoy. “I was at the rear corner of the Humvee when the grenade hit the tail light right beside my right leg,” he said. “I was lying on my side. I could see my legs were really messed up.” Heath yelled to the driver of the vehicle to call the incident in to headquarters. “I laid my head back down and that’s all I remember.”
Road to Recovery and Advocacy
The injuries he sustained ultimately resulted in the loss of both legs above-knees. Another soldier was killed in the attack. Heath wears a bracelet etched with the soldiers name and date of the attack on his right wrist in honor of his service.
After nine months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC, Heath struggled with his prosthetic legs. He tried several different components including a pair of computerized knees but none were comfortable or practical and he always needed canes to walk. The prostheses he tried caused irritation to his residual limbs. “The fit of the sockets was not what I needed in order to stand on them,” he says.
After two years, he resigned himself to the fact that he would never be a full-time prosthetic user and would always use a wheelchair. But Heath is not a guy that stands still (just ask anyone who has ever met him) and he found ways to put his energies into other pursuits.
Providing encouragement and counseling for other amputees became a serious interest for Heath. During his rehab at Walter Reed, he became acquainted with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), a national organization dedicated to raising public awareness and aid for severely injured service members. The shared experiences of the group’s members proved to be invaluable to him during his recovery and later he wanted to so the same for others. So he began talking about his own successes, struggles and the unique challenges that amputees face daily. Eventually, the group asked him to be a national spokesperson and now he speaks to, and counsels the newly injured around the country. He also became an Amputee Coalition of America (ACA) certified peer visitor. Through this organization he makes himself available to others who have lost limbs and provides emotional and informational support to them.
Just five months after he was injured Heath attended a Winter Sports Clinic in Aspen, Colorado where he attempted skiing for the first time. At the conclusion of the event Heath was awarded the Challenge Aspen Inspiration Award not just for his athleticism, but for the person “who best embodied the spirit of inspiration on and off the snow.” His passion for snow skiing continues today as he trains for a slot on the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team to hopefully once again represent the U.S. in the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games
Some of his advocacy efforts gained recognition nationally. His most notable accomplishment was helping to get the “Wounded Warrior Bill” passed through Congress in 2005. Known as “traumatic injury protection,” the legislation financially assists wounded soldiers and their families during the months, and sometimes years, of grueling rehabilitation.
In the spring of 2005, Heath participated in the Soldier Ride National Tour, an event that raised awareness and money to aid in the rehabilitation of injured service members returning home from conflicts abroad. He successfully completed the 4,200-mile cross-country bike ride utilizing a hand-cycle. The ride and Heath’s amazing endeavor is documented in the Showtime Original Production "Home Front".
A Second Chance with Hanger Clinic
But even with all of his counseling and advocacy activities and his successes in sports, Heath still felt limited by the wheelchair. In June 2006, a fellow wounded soldier suggested he attend a workshop for bilateral above-knee amputees, presented by Hanger Clinic patients and clinicians at the National ACA Conference in Minneapolis. At the workshop, Heath watched in awe as patients including Cameron Clapp demonstrated negotiating stairs, ramps, even driving a car. “I was astounded to see what these people were doing. It was almost as if they could function like a person with two natural legs. Just seeing what Cameron could do was so imperative to my recovery,” says Calhoun. “Here was another bilateral who had tested everything and got around fine. To me, his success spoke to Hanger Clinic’s expertise in the area.”
Right there, Heath decided to give prosthetics another try. He had no idea that the decision would change his life forever.
Heath also met Winter the Dolphin, another patient of Hanger Clinic, and even had the opportunity to be in the pool with her. He was also featured on NBC Nightly News with Winter. Heath was the first non-medical person to swim with Winter.
"If they (Hanger Clinic) can make a prosthetic tail stay on a dolphin, in the water, then I want them in my corner making my prosthetics.”
After training in short prosthetic legs for several weeks, he was fitted with Hanger ComfortFlex™ Sockets and microprocessor controlled C-Leg's. Just days after being fit, he was up and walking independently, without using canes or crutches. Heath has not used a wheelchair since July 5, 2006.
Calhoun worked with a clinician at Hanger Clinic to fit a new prosthesis using the ComfortFlex, but he says his improved comfort had as much to do with clinical skill as technology. “The best socket design in the world isn’t going to work if it’s fit improperly,” he says. “I think some of prosthetics really is an art form. My clinician was able to translate what I was telling him to make a well-fitting socket.”
With a comfortable fit and a powered-up set of C-Leg® microprocessor knees, Calhoun has continued to pursue skiing and patient advocacy. His new legs gave him the ability to try all sorts of new sports and activities that he never thought would be possible again. “My prosthetic legs give me the option to do things on my own. To go out by myself, be spontaneous and more independent. If I want to take my son Mason to the driving range and hit a bucket of balls, or carry my two daughters around the house, I can just do it. Just knowing that is the best thing.”
In May 2007, the Wounded Warrior Project at their annual fundraising gala held in New York City honored Heath. He was awarded the George C. Lang Award for Courage in honor of the achievements he has made since his injury.
Heath competed in the Endeavor Games for People with Physical Disabilities in Edmond, Oklahoma. At the event, Heath ran in the 100 and 200-meter sprint races. This was the first time he had competed in an official track meet. He took the Silver Medal in both events.
But for Heath, the real winning moment came after the 100-meter race. Heath and his son Mason were walking together to the start line to prepare for the 200-meter race. His son stopped for a moment and said, “Hey dad, will you run with me?” Without a second thought Heath responded, “Sure son, let's run to that second tree and back.” They took off like a shot. What an amazing moment to once again be a dad not limited by the injuries he sustained in Iraq.
Heath continues to push the envelope. Not only does he drive a car without hand controls, but owns and drives a car with a manual transmission. Using the second mode of the C-Leg microprocessor knees, he can use his right prosthetic leg to safely go between the gas and brake pedals and the left leg to operate the clutch. “Being able to drive any vehicle is something I never thought I would ever be able to do. After I was injured, I was told I would have to use special hand controls to drive. I am glad to say that is not the case at all. Hopefully others with similar injuries will see some of the things I am doing and know it is possible for them as well.”
Health loves to snow ski using a mono-ski. He is a member of the Challenge Aspen Competition Race Team in Snowmass, Colorado and a member of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team.
He earned a spot on the 2010 Paralympic ski team and competed in the Vancouver games.
Health was also honored by his teammates to be the flag bearer at the Paralympics opening ceremonies. Heath was proud to raise the flag and lead Team USA into the arena. He had 2 top 10 finishes at the Paralympics but no medals, which was certainly disappointing, but he is now training for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. Currently, his goal is to make the 2014 Paralympic team for the games where he hopes to compete in slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom, and super combined. His training entails spending most days of the week in the gym, doing intense core work, as well as skiing 100 days or more throughout the year, including summer skiing in New Zealand and Europe.
When he’s not skiing, Calhoun travels to veteran centers nationally to counsel other amputees, often doing joint presentations with Clapp. He says one of his most important tasks today is to encourage injured veterans to reach their goals. “I’ll talk to anybody I can—at the airport, at the VA hospital, or at Walmart,” says Calhoun. “For me, it’s important to say, ‘Hey, look, I lost both my legs in war. You can get up and do it.’”
He also pauses to enjoy family life at home, playing with his three kids, coaching his son’s baseball team, and bush-hogging on his 17-acre spread. He performs all of these activities wearing his prostheses.
“I haven’t sat in a wheelchair in five years,” he says. “That’s a big accomplishment for me. I live my life in my prosthetics.”
For more information about Heath you can visit his website at www.heathcalhoun.com.
For more information about the Wounded Warrior Project, visit their website at www.woundedwarriorproject.org.