Navy vet finds joy in skiing
John Cook grew up on a 106 acre farm in Humboldt County. He could hunt, cut firewood, do all the things that make growing up on a farm fun. It turned him into a lover of the outdoors.
But when he lost a limb from a botched surgery and spiraled away from the outdoors like so many disabled men and women do. He lost his career, his identity, and his will to live. He was stuck on the couch. He attempted, many times, to become one of the 22 veterans who commits suicide every day.
Now, adaptive skiing has brought him back.
“I get depressed staying inside for too long,” Cook said.
“When I am at the top of the mountain and I just enjoy the view, just feel the breathe enter my lungs, the cold air, I am happy to be alive.”
Cook served eight years as an airplane structural mechanic for the navy. He spent six of those years at Naval Air Station Lemoore in the California’s Central Valley.
It was there that he met his wife. They married in October of 2008. Around the same time, Cook broke his ankle while playing basketball on leave.
He thought it was just a sprain and went a while without letting anyone know that it was hurt. Being in the Navy, he was worried that an injury incurred while on leave might get him into trouble.
His first surgery took place in November of 2008, a month after his wedding. Doctors ground down the part of the ankle that had chipped off. Over the next six months he had five more surgeries to fix the mistakes of the first one.
Then, the spasms came. While on leave he would have pain spasms so bad in his ankle that he had to be knocked unconscious when he got to the hospital. He searched for help but was turned away from a military emergency room because, they said, he was just searching for pills.
“When the doctor kicked me out, I didn’t really argue with him,” Cook said. “My tolerance was high. I was in a lot of pain, and I was abusing (Oxycontin) a little bit at that time, not nearly as bad as it would get.”
He went to a civilian doctor the next day. The civilian hospital told him that he had a MRSA Infection in his ankle, and if he waited another week he likely would have died.
Over the next year and a half he had two more surgeries attempting to rid his leg of the infections, and when his bone was found to be infected, a third to amputate.
The way Cook’s injury happened made it mentally even worse for him. He was not deployed when he got hurt. It was all just due to someone’s mistake.
He had already committed to 20 years of service. He was about to be sent to Guam, and just like that, he was no longer part of his team.
It also didn’t help that he was being given bottle after bottle of pain medication. He lost himself to addiction and depression.
“I didn’t want to live any more,” he said. “Daily life was not comfortable.”
He switched to harder stuff when the pain meds weren’t enough. His wife and son were the only thing keeping him from the brink.
“I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger… I felt like I needed to leave my wife in order to pull the trigger, and she wouldn’t leave. I was looking for that excuse.”
His wife stayed with him because she knew the man he was before.
Cook discovered adaptive skiing in 2015. He started out skiing on China Peak, a small mountain near his home in Fresno. Before he learned to love the sport, he loved the other disabled people that took their time to help him. It was a welcome respite from the psychiatrists at the VA.
“It mattered that we were getting up and outside, trying to figure this stuff out together. That was more powerful than any medication or psychiatry they could give me,” Cook said.
Cook had never skied before his accident, so it was a struggle. He was put on a sit ski at first just to learn the basics.
He moved up from China Peak to skiing Breckenridge, and eventually came to Mammoth Mountain to ski with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra.
“I was amazed to see that giant peak,” Cook said of Mammoth.
“Seeing the size of the mountain, riding down it and looking back at what you accomplished, it absolutely can be life-changing.”
Cook came to ski Mammoth twice this year. Now that he has the basics of skiing down, he hopes to learn to stand-up ski with a prosthetic in the near future.
He has also started working with a veterans group called Our Heroes Dreams, facilitating other vets to get on the mountain. Seeing other disabilities gives him perspective.
“There were times when I thought my life was over, and now I say, “I’m just a single-leg amputee. That’s nothing. That’s nothing compared to what some of these people go through.”
The depression that he went through before seems like a whole different life.
“Through organizations like Disabled Sports, I look back and laugh and say how could you have felt like that? I look back like, ‘Really?’ There’s so much more to live for… Disability is nothing. It can be overcome.”
The National Wounded Warrior Center, proposed to be built on the Cerro Coso college campus in Mammoth Lakes, would allow Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra to provide support services to more than 300 veterans and their families each year.
The 36-room facility would provide transitional housing designed for veterans, and include areas for recreation, learning and dining.
Veterans would also have access to educational and vocational programs, wellness and PTSD management training and therapuetic opportunities.
DSES is in the midst of an $18 million capital campaign. See the facing page for details.