Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chris Wolff stares up at the ski slope he's about to ascend — a snowy trail that presents another opportunity for the disabled veteran to test his body, mind and fortitude.
Five years ago, the aircraft mechanic lay in a Tacoma, Washington, hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.
The Afghanistan veteran had survived a dangerous combat tour only to be felled by a flu shot in 2008, when he developed a rare reaction called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis within hours of getting the mandatory military immunization.
Unlike the previous seven times he'd gotten the shot, the vaccine triggered an overreaction of Wolff's autoimmune system, causing his own defenses to attack his central nervous system, including his spinal cord and brain. He was in a coma for more than a month.
"[When I woke up] I was told I would never walk, breathe on my own, eat or talk ever again. If I had had the ability to do it, I would have committed suicide," Wolff says in a 20-minute episode of a series now available for download on Netflix, "Wounded: The Battle Back Home."
The episode, part of a 12-part series on the ongoing struggles veterans face, showcases the relationship Wolff has with fellow veteran Keith Sekora, injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan.
A friendship forged by a love of sports and a common bond that Wolff says never has to be explained is just one of the topics explored in this documentary series, produced by the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project to detail veterans' stories of injury, illness or challenges and the monumental efforts they have made to overcome them.
First aired on MSNBC as part of its "Take the Hill" series, "Wounded: The Battle Back Home" was made available on Netflix on Feb. 15.
"It's incredibly powerful that these warriors allowed us into their lives for these shoots. And these aren't just stories about the veterans, but about these incredibly intimate moments that these families allowed us to share," Wounded Warrior Project executive vice president for communications Ayla Hay said.
Each segment offers a glimpse into the lives of disabled veterans, showcasing the often-heartbreaking struggles of former service members dealing with severe head injuries, lost limbs, illnesses and mental health conditions related to combat, deployments or sexual assault.
Created originally to commemorate the nonprofit's 10th anniversary, "Wounded: The Battle Back Home" was developed by the Wounded Warrior Project and Flow Nonfiction to raise awareness of veterans issues and to give the general population an idea of the painful circumstances some post-9/11 vets must endure.
"There is a lot of public awareness about amputees and those with physical wounds, but there's a lot less of an understanding of the mental health issues facing some of these veterans," Hay said.
"Part of the goal is to show the American public the true sacrifices these Americans have made that will live on for a lifetime. But it's also for wounded veterans who may not know of the services available to them, and maybe seeing their brothers and sisters reaching out for help will encourage them to come forward."
Retired Army National Guard Sgt. Dennis Cabanting received a serious head injury in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. He needed to relearn how to take a shower, brush his teeth and walk on his own.
Now in a wheelchair, he still needs needs help from his nearly 70-year-old mother, Juliann Najar, to manage the day-to-day tasks of cooking, cleaning, dressing and taking his medications.
The documentary lens focuses on Cabanting as he struggles to manage his uncontrollable shaking, a symptom of multiple sclerosis brought on by the blast-related head trauma.
"The first time Dennis showered by himself, I started to cry because the look on his face was like he'd won a million dollars," Najar said.
The Wounded Warrior Project has more than 20 programs to help post-9/11 veterans. While "Wounded: The Battle Back Home" sometimes has the feel of an extended Wounded Warrior Project paid advertisement, the intent is not to call attention to the organization's programs but to focus on the needs of veterans, according to Hay.
"I don't know how anyone watching the series could come away from it anything but touched, inspired and humbled" by these veterans, Hay said.
The project cost about $2 million. And while the Wounded Warrior Project has been criticized in the past for its aggressive fundraising, executive salaries and advertising, Hay said Executive Director Steven Nardizzi is unapologetic about his ambitious plans to provide care and services to these veterans for life.
"We believe very strongly that you may have the best of intentions to impact peoples' lives, but if you aren't willing to invest in your infrastructure or people [it's not going to work]," Hay said.
Each episode focuses on a different aspect of life after military combat, from adaptive sports and serving as a veteran mentor to dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, survivor's guilt and the lifelong consequences of injuries.
Former senior airman Jessica Coulter served four years in the Air Force and now helps other victims of military sexual assault and rape through Wounded Warrior Project programs. She is one of 13 veterans who opened up about their post-war lives in "Wounded: The Battle Back Home," a 12-part series available on YouTube and Netflix.
Photo Credit: Wounded Warrior Project
Jessica Coulter served as a chaplain's assistant in the Air Force from 1999 to 2003, leaving as a staff sergeant select.
In her segment of "Wounded: The Battle Back Home," Coulter details coming to terms with having been raped in the military — a crime she never reported and buried deep inside for years.
She thought she had handled assault just fine. But when discussing it at a forum for female veterans hosted by the Wounded Warrior Project, she began to realize that problems with her marriage and subsequent divorce, holding a job, out-of-control behavior and, at one point, homelessness, had their roots in the assault.
"I started talking and realized there were other female veterans out there with similar stories," Coulter said.
Now a yoga instructor who is studying to be a counselor, Coulter said she took part in the series to give a voice to men and women who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military, often by coworkers or senior personnel whom they trusted.
"Military sexual trauma is really tough to talk about. It's just hard. Because it's such a hard thing to do, I wanted to be there for others, to tell them, 'It's OK, you're not crazy, it happened to me, too,' " Coulter said.
She said she hopes audiences watch the series to see how so many veterans fought for the United States and now are overcoming serious physical and mental wounds.
"This is the real cost of war. This is what happens to us. I really hope it helps people want to live in a more peaceful world, a world where there are no veterans because there are no wars," Coulter said.
The Wounded Warrior Project has 60,000 registered members and provides veterans services free of charge to members and their families.
In addition to being available on Netflix, all 12 episodes of "Wounded: The Battle Back Home" are available on Youtube.com.