June 17, 2013
After an injury in Iraq and then a horrific car accident stateside left him quadriplegic, former Army Ranger and Sedalia native Chris Bemiss has a message to others with mobility issues: “Never give up.”
On a trip in May to Colorado, he realized he could reach new levels of mobility that he assumed would be lost forever.
Eight years ago, we received two phone calls that parents never hope to get — one saying our son, a Special Operations soldier, was wounded in Iraq, and the second a few months later saying he was severely injured in a car accident near Louisville, Ky.
After 19 months in the hospital, he came home to a new way of life. The doctor said to look at the glass as half full. After many struggles, Chris began to view the glass as half full instead of counting his losses.
He eventually learned to manage his own care, drive, cook, use the computer and go deer hunting. He began to play on a wheelchair rugby team, started college, majored in criminal justice, and even mastered a zero-turn radius lawn mower. But, he’d not been back to Colorado since he was a teenager.
Colorado was where he climbed trees and boulders, meandered through canyons and was always the leader on family hiking trips. I wondered if this would be a trip with too many limitations, a trip he might find disappointing.
But, once there, the sunshine, the mountains, the waterfalls, the trails and the rivers worked their magic. On day two, Chris drove his family to the top of Pikes Peak, handling each sharp curve with the hand controls on his steering wheel.
At the top of Pikes Peak, elevation 14,114 feet, Chris met a fellow Ranger with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y. Although the men had never met before, they shared an instant bond that only Rangers understand. This set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Five hours to the west in Ouray, Colo., on day four, Chris requested to drive behind a jeep tour his family was taking. His request was granted.
Don Fehd, the tour guide for Switzerland of America Off Road Tours, discussed with Chris his truck’s capabilities and welcomed him along. The half-day trip consisted of driving on narrow rock-rutted back-country mountain trails, through several fast-moving streams and ascending in elevation to 12,000 feet at Yankee Boy Basin and 13,114 feet at Imogene Pass.
Driving off-road bolstered his confidence further. He no longer needed feet to guide him up the trail.
On day five, while his wife, Tonia; son, Trey; and I were at Ouray’s hot springs, Chris and his dad, Roy, discovered the Alpine Loop, a back-country byway looping 65 miles around the northern San Juan Mountains. Later that day, he took us on an abbreviated drive of the loop.
Chris said that driving around the mountain jeep trails was reminiscent of driving in Afghanistan. Driving these trails helped him feel in control of his life again.
The plan for day seven was to go whitewater rafting. When Chris said he’d called Mild to Wild Rafting in Durango and they said he could go along, Tonia, Trey and I were worried. But his dad believed he would do fine.
Once we arrived at the rafting company, they assured us that they were experienced in guiding paraplegic, quadriplegic and amputee clients.
Our guide, Rob Meeker, made Chris and the rest of us feel confident in his ability as a guide and Chris’s ability as a rafter. Chris was given a life vest that would keep his face upright and out of the water in case he went overboard through the class-III rapids. He sat in the front of the raft in a lawn chair and steadied himself with a rope. The trip was a success.
“Don’t think that just because you’re disabled, you can’t go out and have a good time,” Chris said after arriving home in Kentucky.
He added that being outdoors and in the sunshine makes a difference too.
“The only way to stop being depressed and beat your disability is to get out and do things,” he said.