SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – Eight and a half months ago, Army Sgt. Kristian “Dino” Cedeno was on the top of the world -- married six days before deploying to Afghanistan with the love of his life and soldiering with his band of brothers from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
Life changed in an instant when Cedeno stepped on an improvised explosive device during a firefight in Kandahar. His right leg was blown off just above the knee, and his left leg was so burned and peppered with shrapnel that his wife, Gwen, said it looked like a shark had chewed it away.
Cedeno begged Gwen to divorce him, fearing he had let her down and could never be the husband she deserved. But Gwen, a fourth-grade teacher at the Department of Defense Education Activity school at Fort Stewart, Ga., assured him that she knew what she was getting into when she married a soldier.
“I told him, ‘You are mine, and I am yours,’” she said, promising to stand with him as their lives took a new and unexpected turn.
Flash forward to today. After a month at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and four months after being discharged from the James A. Haley Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tampa, Fla., Cedeno refuses to let what some would consider life-changing wounds define him -- or even slow him down.
April 1, Cedeno snowboarded down Snowmass Mountain during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, surprising even himself at his accomplishment. The experience exhilarated Cedeno, one of just two active-duty troops among almost 400 disabled veterans participating in the clinic.
“In one word, I feel like I’m alive again,” he said while celebrating the success with Gwen and his adaptive ski instructor, Air Force veteran Jill Reifsnider, at his side.
Like so many other aspects of his life, Cedeno acknowledged that his first time on a snowboard since his injury wasn’t exactly as he remembered.
As Iraq veteran Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs, asked Cedeno if he was ready to take on the mountain, Cedeno said he expected to do a lot of falling.
“That’s OK,” Sowers assured him. “If you’re not falling down, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Then, at one point during Cedeno’s downward run, air pockets formed around his new prosthetic leg, causing it to unexpectedly pop out of position midway down the slope. “It’s a little different, and I have to adjust. I have to relearn things I have been doing for 20 years,” he said. “But do you know what? I’ll take that over being told, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’”
For Cedeno, the lessons he’s learning at the world’s largest and longest-running rehabilitative disabled sports event are life lessons: never give up and never stop reaching for new heights. It’s the can-do spirit that’s driven him throughout his recovery and rehabilitation, Gwen said.
Cedeno remains committed to his career as an Army infantryman. “I’m not done yet,” he said, hoping to one day serve as a drill sergeant so he can continue training other soldiers.
“And I know I have a few more deployments in me,” he added.
“I’m not unrealistic,” Cedeno insisted. “I know I have limitations and have to relearn things, and I accept that. But I’m 31 years old and not ready to hang my boots up.”
The speed of Cedeno’s recovery attracts a lot of attention that he admits makes him uncomfortable. “I hate being told I’m a hero or an inspiration,” he said. “I have always been that guy to do his job, not for the ‘Good for you’ or the congratulations.”
But Gwen regularly reminds her husband that he’s a role model for his fellow wounded warriors who inspires awe in those who meet him and learn his story. “Do you not realize just how amazing you are?” she asks him, reminding him of how far he has come during the past eight months.
In fact, Cedeno said, it’s those around him -- his wife, his fellow soldiers, his caregivers -- who inspire him to press on. Talking privately with his fellow platoon members, he tells them, “You motivated me to continue this fight that I thought I had lost.”
That fight continues this week at the winter sports clinic, where Cedeno said he’s found a support network that will be a big factor in his continued progress -- here on the slopes and in life.
Looking up at the mountain, Cedeno said he was ready to tackle it once again, perhaps even faster this time. “It’s just like my job. Of course I’m going back out there!” he said.
“The important thing here is for the veterans to feel challenged,” said Sowers as he joined Cedeno for a run down the mountain. “They get that joy of moving fast again. They get that experience of taking on something new.”
What participants experience during their week at the winter sports clinic continues for the other 51 weeks of the year, Sowers said.
“They go back to their local communities and work with their recreational therapists to make sure they continue to challenge themselves,” he said.
They’ll also take with them the camaraderie and support of their fellow veterans and wounded warriors, Sowers said.
“We form lifelong friendships here that continue well after this event ends,” he said. “It’s part of what ensures that what begins here at the winter sports clinic continues encouraging them.”
The winter sports clinic, co-sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department and the Disabled American Veterans, is open to U.S. military veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.
During the six-day program, veterans learn adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing and are introduced to rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, snowmobiling, sled hockey and other sports and activities.