By Emily Stifler, Mountain Outlaw Editor

Lieutenant Colonel Kathy Champion
tied into the climbing rope and methodically
made her way up the frozen
waterfall by kicking her crampons into
the ice and swinging her tools above her
head. She heard water dripping behind
the ice and felt cold air on her face, but
couldn’t see where to place her tools or
kick her feet. That’s because Champion
is blind.

“It was a little surreal because if it
wasn’t for the guys on the ground telling
me I was on a cliff wall, I wouldn’t
have been able to perceive how high I
was,” Champion said. “Part of doing
anything—whether you can visually
see or not see—is being able to conquer
the fear of fear itself.”

Champion served 27 years in the U.S.
Army, including tours in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Seven roadside bombs
hit her convoy in Iraq, and the ensuing
traumatic brain injuries, combined with
a viral infection, left her blind.

She came to Montana in January 2011
as part of Operation SAS—the “Sports,
Afield and Stream” project. The weeklong
event brought 45 wounded warriors
to Big Sky to participate in outdoor
recreation and adventure.

“I was the highest-ranking person
there,” Champion remembers of her
day climbing. “But you take off the
rank and you take off the uniform and
you’re there to have a good time.”

Having camaraderie in a safe, pristine
environment with people who really
cared and believed in the sacrifices
these veterans made, and with other
veterans—that was a powerful and
healing experience, she said.

“The biggest thing about this event
is it gives [us] an opportunity to meet
other wounded warriors in a relaxed
and encouraging [setting], where they
can actually breathe a little and truly
play,” Champion said. “Laughter is
the best medicine.”

The SAS project is supported by Operation
Never Forgotten, a volunteer
nonprofit that works to create national
awareness for the more than 47,000
wounded warriors, deployed troops,
fallen heroes and military families.

SAS will return to Big Sky this summer,
taking veterans rock climbing,
horseback riding, rafting, fly fishing,
zip lining, archery, shooting, mountain
biking and golfing. They’ll have
opportunities to watch a rodeo, visit
the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
and hike in Yellowstone National Park
with a pack string of llamas.

“Too many of our combat veterans
are struggling with invisible wounds
or stress injury and are falling into
high rates of crime, broken marriages,
substance abuse and even suicide,”
said ONF President Linda Kelly. “We
introduce new hope and passion in life
through adaptive skills.”

Senator Jon Tester and Lieutenant
Governor John Bohlinger attended last
year’s event, and both plan to return
this summer.

“Our veterans have made deep
sacrifices, and it’s our responsibility
to support them when they return,”
said Tester, a member of the Senate
Committee on Veterans Affairs. “One
of the most meaningful ways they can
heal is through the camaraderie of other
veterans.”

Several wounded warrior guests,
including Champion, will return, this
time as volunteers and mentors.
“I’ll encourage [other veterans] to
look beyond their wounds, believe in
themselves and realize the wound does
not identify you,” Champion said. “You
are still who you are. You have things to
contribute to society just like everyone
else.”

Montana’s beautiful country and
friendly communities fit the project
well.

“Montana is God’s gift to man,” Champion
said. “This is why we went to war,
this is what we went to fight for—the
beauty of this country. I could feel and
smell it, and it was clean and crisp. This
is the America I remember.”

This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Read more here.