East TN veteran hits slopes for 2014 Sochi Paralympics

(WBIR) An East Tennessee army veteran is competing right now in Sochi for the 2014 Paralympics.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun, 34, is an alpine skier who calls Bristol his hometown, according to the Team USA website. He now lives in Clarksville and is a major advocate for wounded warriors, helping get the Wounded Warrior Bill passed through Congress in 2005.

Serving his country was ingrained in Calhoun at an early age: his father served in Vietnam; his grandfather fought in World War II. Calhoun decided to carry on his family's legacy in the military, so he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1999.

He served as Squad Leader for the 101st Airborne Division while deployed in Iraq where he was severely wounded. Ten years ago, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee, taking both of his legs and killing one of his comrades.

During his rehabilitation, Calhoun learned about the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and support for wounded soldiers. Wounded Warriors introduced Calhoun to his new passion, adaptive skiing.

MORE: TODAY SHOW's Heath Calhoun interview

"I just kind of blossomed accidentally, " Calhoun told TODAY.com. "I was in a wheelchair. I didn't want to be in a wheelchair, I just wanted to get up. I wanted life [back] the way it was. At some point I accepted it was never going to be the way it was, but it could be different, and better even. It was something that put me back on a level playing field with everybody else and from there, I just wanted to be good at it - I wanted to be the best."

But it wasn't an easy road to the Paralympics for Calhoun, according to TODAY.com Since he was born and raised in the South, he had only skied a handful of times before he was injured. So he took it one day at a time, saying a poster he was given while at Walter Reed inspired him to keep going.

"It's a famous picture, of a stork eating a frog, but the frog has his hand out, choking the stork, with the words, ' Never give up,'" he said. "I keep that picture - it's still in my room now, and it has kind of become a mantra for me."

Despite everything he's been through, the father of three has taken a glass half full approach at life.

"I couldn't obviously pick what happened to me in my life. I had the opportunity to sit at home and be upset, be disappointed with the way life worked out for me. But I felt like I had too much to live for, too much that I could do, instead of feeling sorry for myself. So I chose to look at it in a positive light, and it's led me down a wonderful road," he told TODAY.com.

The 34-year-old competed in the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games and was the team's flag bearer in Vancouver.

For him, its a way to encourage other wounded military veterans to keep up the fight, honor his fallen comrades, and represent his country.

"I think there are a lot of similarities between my military service and ski racing," Calhoun said. "They've both given me an opportunity to represent my country to its fullest, whether it was on the battlefield, or the battlefield that will be the Sochi Paralympics in March for me."

Contributing: TODAY.com, TeamUSA.org


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