Injured Iraq Vets Gain Hope On The Slopes

When you've been a Marine for 17 years and go by the name "Spanky," there's probably not a lot you haven't been through, CBS News' Harry Smith reports.

So learning to ski with one leg didn't scare Spanky Gibson. He knows a little about fear — and a whole lot about courage.

"It could always be worse. I've known that from the beginning, the first time I saw I didn't have a leg at the end of my stump, under my covers, I said 'that's life, let's start moving forward,'" Gibson says.

He lost his leg to a sniper in Iraq. Since then, he's learned to walk again, and bike and even golf. The week before he came to Colorado to ski, he was in a triathlon.

"I've got two roads that I can take. I can loathe myself in self-pity and do nothing and not walk again and not do anything like this again, or I can be positive and I can do everything that I think is possible to do," Gibson says.

Gibson is one of dozens of disabled Iraq war vets who came to Breckenridge at the invitation of the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA. It's a way to restore some of what's been lost on the battlefield.

Gibson says when he's coming down the slope, it feels like "freedom."

Many of these vets have spent more than a year in hospitals and rehabilitation. Even with an army of volunteers and the best equipment available, falling and failure are real possibilities.

"I think this is the first mountain for them," says John Melia of the Wounded Warrior Project. "This is the first mountain in their next step of recovery, and I can tell you they're scared."

Natasha McKinnon, an Iraq war veteran, was coaxed into coming to Breckinridge by the staff at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

"This is my first time, my first time skiing, so I'm enjoying myself very much," McKinnon says.

An IED ripped through McKinnon's Humvee in Iraq. She lost a leg and her body will always be riddled with shrapnel. None of that is important now, as she skis free from the tethers of her instructors for the first time.

It would be easy to be bitter or angry after losing a limb, in a way. Instead, the veterans on the mountainside have an envious level of life-affirming joy.

Gibson says "of course" he feels lucky to be alive. "That's the most important thing we have, right? Life. So I'm going to live it to the fullest and have the best time I can. That's part of being out here," he adds.

They say they teach skiing at Breckenridge. But it looks like a whole lot more than that.

For more information: The Hartford sponsors the annual event, called The Hartford Ski Spectacular, and works with Disabled Sports U.S.A. and the Wounded Warrior Project to get the vets out there.