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Story Last modified at 10:50 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chugiak veteran Latseen Benson takes to the slopes
Six years after injury due to roadside bombing, former soldier competes in national ski event in Girdwood

BY ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Star

Former Chugiak resident Latseen Benson lost his right leg and half his left to a roadside bomb during his second deployment to Iraq in 2005.

Before Benson even left Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C., he started taking runs on a mono-ski, a ski attached to a tight-fitting seat that's highly tuned to a skier's movements. Within less than a year, he competed in archery, handcycling, basketball and track in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He takes part in national sit volleyball training programs.

Next?

This week, Benson will be ripping down the slopes in Girdwood at about 60 mph on a mono-ski. He's competing in super G, super combined and giant slalom events at the 2011 U.S. Adaptive Alpine Championships at Alyeska Resort.

Would he have been surprised right after his injury to learn he'd be skiing at a national level six years later?

"I'd have probably wondered why the hell it had taken so long," Benson said by phone from Chugiak, where his mother and stepfather live and where he was resting up before competition began.

The Alyeska competition marks not only the 31-year-old's first try at nationals, but his first ski-race season.

"So I'm not looking to get first in anything," Benson said.

Benson said he snowboarded a little before his injury but wasn't a serious skier. One reason he delayed getting serious about competitive skiing after he got injured, he said, was the cost. Now skiing is a priority.

He's been training in Colorado with a new program, the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Veterans Alpine Skiing Program, which includes injured military and veteran athletes. The group also traveled to a glacier in Austria to train.

It was Benson's first trip to Europe since he spent several days in a military hospital in Germany.

Benson's injuries occurred on a routine patrol in Kirkuk. His truck was the last in a convoy when Benson got out to check the perimeter for improvised explosive devices. His gunner had spotted something – a bomb in a grain sack with a remote detonator, according to news and military reports – and as Benson approached, it exploded. Fellow soldiers gave him emergency treatment, and he was flown first to a hospital in Iraq, then Germany, then Walter Reed Medical Center where he remained for nine months.

The U.S. Army awarded him a Purple Heart – a military medal bestowed upon those injured or killed in combat – in 2005.

Members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart waited at the airport Saturday to greet Benson, said his mother, Diane Benson, a political activist and candidate, and playwright.

She visited with some of them, and discovered that among the group were former classmates of Latseen's from Chugiak High and Fire Lake Elementary.

Benson "Googled" her son recently and found a wealth of hits – 1,970 results, it looks like. He's featured on a flyer advertising an upcoming ski competition in Utah, she said.

"He's the poster boy for next month's activities in Park City," she said.

Benson's first event at Alyeska, the Super G, is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. He also plans to compete in the Super Combined at 12:30 p.m. Friday and slalom events over the weekend.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.