On Top of the World

Tammy Landeen remembers everything about the accident. 

Her horse, Lucy Mae, got spooked while galloping 30 miles an hour on a familiar trail near their Georgia home. Landeen was thrown into a tree, never losing consciousness but sustaining 28 broken bones, five vertebrae fractures and a collapsed lung.

A rib fragment came within a millimeter of Landeen’s heart.

“I never hit my head, which was fortunate,” she says. “I remember hitting the ground. I remember losing the feeling of my legs. I remember my lung collapsing. I can remember telling myself to calm down because the more I’d freak out, the more it hurt. But the more it hurt, the more I was freaking out.”

Her thoughts instantly went to her young daughters, who were 20 miles away and would soon be getting home from school. “Who would get them?” Landeen wondered while calling for help. Her husband, Shawn, was deployed to Iraq.

Landeen would never walk again.

Her girls reacted differently to the news. Nickole, 5, told Landeen, “It’s OK, Mommy. I still love you.” Katalyn, 8, was dismayed. “It’s not fair! I’m never going to be able to go to Disney World.”

In time, Katalyn learned to accept her mother’s circumstances. “When one door closes, another one opens,” she says now. 

That open door has led to many opportunities for the family. 

‘Mad at the world’ After the initial shock, the family struggled for some time.

“There was lots of turmoil,” Katalyn says.“I had lots of questions, but there was no one to answer those questions because she was in a coma.”

Two months after her Oct. 28, 2005, accident, Landeen awoke, consumed with anger. “I didn’t want to participate in anything, even life.”

She stayed home, sitting on the couch and watching hours and hours of TV. “I thought, ‘This sucks.’ My life is over. How do I live? I was beyond depressed. I was mad at the world. I didn’t want anything to do with anybody.”

Her depression dragged on for around five years, until Shawn had had enough. He met some handcyclists and forced Tammy to try it out. “They set up a group ride for me, and I went kicking and screaming,” she recalls. “I was completely closed-minded to it. But when I got a chance to get on the handcycle, I fell in love with it. It was freeing, wind in my hair again.”

Riding also gave her a community. Landeen went all in and trained for the Paralyzed Veterans of America cycling team. She competed in about 50 cycling events, triathlons and marathons, finishing second in the Boston Marathon and winning the Marine Corps Marathon in 2015.  

A few years later, a cycling friend helped connect Landeen with the Team USA national bobsled team for paralyzed athletes. A member of Martin Klein American Legion Post 133 in FortKent, Maine, she had been riding snowmobiles independently and agreed to try bobsledding. 

“The idea of a winter sport living in Maine was exciting,” she says. “I jumped at the opportunity, and when I got there, I almost chickened out.”

Because athletes cannot push the bobsled to start the run, they sit inside and are brought to the start line. Landeen was nervous but went through with it.

“That first run I had my eyes closed more than open,” she says. “I didn’t do a whole lot of steering. Just rode it out. When I got to the bottom I couldn’t stop smiling. It was so much adrenaline, so much excitement. It was something I could do that my worthless legs didn’t matter. And I could still go just as fast as an able-bodied person and experience those rushes. It was amazing.”

The sleds are so fast that the athletes have to study course diagrams, memorizing every turn and then anticipating them while blazing down the mountain, Landeen says.

“You have to pay attention and watch where you’re going and constantly think about what you’re going to do. You can’t tense up because you might steer in the wrong spot. All you see is these ice walls going by you and you watch these little blue dots that are painted in the ice.”

Like golf courses, no two bobsled tracks are alike.

“The kicker to bobsledding is that this track is this track, but when we leave here, it’s done,” Landeen says of the Park City, Utah, course where she competed in a World Cup event in February. “There’s nothing you learn at this track that’s going to help you at the next other than the experience. The corner two here isn’t like corner two anywhere else in the world. You have to be able to put one track behind you and move on to the next one. That’s what makes the sport a huge mental game.”

‘An opportunity to help’ Team USA does not cover expenses such as travel for the bobsledders, which can be burdensome when six of the 10 World Cup events are overseas. In rural Maine, Landeen struggled to find willing donors.

“When The American Legion came through and said they wanted to sponsor me as an athlete, it was heartwarming,” she says. “Without The American Legion, I wouldn’t be here right now. You can’t find enough money from little small-town businesses to do this kind of event. So I’m very grateful for what The American Legion has done for me.”

Landeen was contacted by Leroy McKenzie, vice commander of Post 133 and District 17 service officer and vice commander. After some research, he quickly learned about her financial need.

McKenzie contacted Department Commander Matt Jabaut and Adjutant Paul L’Heureux. Eager to support a fellow Legionnaire, McKenzie presented her with a $2,000 check at Post 133. Landeen also received financial support from the post and the Department of Maine American Legion Auxiliary.

“As long as you are a veteran and you are in need, we are going to find a way to help you,” McKenzie says. “That’s the joy of what we do. Our goal is to support veterans on every level, not just somebody who was injured during service, especially in a case like Tammy’s. It was an opportunity to help a veteran, and that’s what we did.”

Landeen’s story is an encouragement to McKenzie, who has struggled with a knee injury for four years. 

“Seeing what Tammy has gone through and the progress she has made is inspiring,” he says. “She has no clue as to the amount of people who look up to her. I have limitations because of my knee. Tammy’s situation is 50 million times worse than mine. So if Tammy can do it, why can’t I? Why can’t I be more active, helping veterans on every level?”

Showing courage As Landeen learns her new sport, she is embracing the camaraderie not only within the Legion but also on Team USA, which she calls “a dream come true.” 

Last season, all five team members were veterans. They had an instant connection. 

“We’ve all shared the same stories, the same experiences and the same downfalls,” says Landeen, who served in the Army for 10 years. “We’re a family that’s going to go far together.”

Teammates prepare together. They encourage one another and huddle in prayer before events. It takes more than team spirit to succeed, though. Courage is essential for athletes who zip down icy mountains at 70 mph while guiding a 400-pound sled with a bungee-cord-like contraption. Skill is also required, with fractions of a second separating podium finishers from back-of-the-packers.  

Army veteran William Castillo lost his left leg in Iraq and started para bobsledding three years ago. He’s been on Team USA for a year.

“Being an all-veteran team is unique,” he says. “We all represent our nation with integrity and honor, and that’s important to us. We also feed off our disabilities, pushing through the fatigue and the mental blocks, so we can do what we need to do.” 

Noting that Landeen is one of the few women in the sport, Castillo says her presence has been a boost for the team. 

“Tammy brings a lot of courage to the team,” he says. “Bobsledding is a little scary. The way she has approached it after being thrown into the top of the track brings courage to the team.”

‘Not no, but how’ Landeen was not the only one in her family to experience depression after the accident.

“We all kind of did for a while,” Katalyn says. “But at one point we figured out that there are more options out there. Everything can be adapted. That kind of perseverance and that attitude of ‘not no, but how’ changed how we viewed everything. We just realized that she’s still her and she’s just sitting down.” 

Katalyn had a front-row seat to her mother’s comeback. It inspired Katalyn to follow in her footsteps into the Army, where she served four years. Now she is a student at the University of Oregon and plans to create a nonprofit to help people with disabilities.

“My passion is cars, and I like to do driving and drifting,” she says of the niche sport where drivers oversteer while keeping control and maneuver through a corner on a closed course. “My goal is to open a nonprofit driving school so people with disabilities can do the things I like to do. It’s in large part due to my mom’s experiences. With the military being my whole life essentially, I would like to open up a special program for veterans.”

One more test Between her handcycling career and discovering bobsledding, Landeen faced another challenge. Shawn was the catalyst for this one, too.

As their family sat outside a restaurant having dinner one night, a couple of men approached on horseback. “I freaked out,” Landeen says. “I had extreme horse PTSD. I was terrified to be anywhere near them for the lack of the ability to move out of their way. My husband recognized how extremely unhealthy that was.”

Shawn again forced her to face her fears. He took Tammy to the house of a friend who was a horse trainer for the sole purpose of getting her back in the saddle. 

She got cold sweats, felt panicky and had difficulty being near the horse. But after a half-hour, Shawn put her on the horse’s back. “I went from being absolutely terrified to ‘Oh my God, I’m on a horse again.’ It was a nice feeling after the initial fear and anxiety went away.”

Landeen took lessons three days a week for nine months. “It helped close that fear chapter,” she says. “I got to where I could ride completely independent again. And then I said, ‘OK, I’m good.’ I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Her gratitude runs deep to her fellow athletes, fellow Legionnaires and, of course, Shawn. She knows that without his determination, her life would be different.

“Living is so worthwhile. To be miserable is doing yourself an injustice. It’s not always going to be an easy road. If I had not been paralyzed, my life wouldn’t be what it is now. I probably wouldn’t still be happily married. I couldn’t say I was in the Boston Marathon or that I won the Marine Corps Marathon. I wouldn’t be sitting here in Park City, Utah. I’m hanging out with some amazing athletes from around the world. My disability changed my life, but I wholeheartedly believe that it changed my life for the better. I wouldn’t change it for the world now.” 

Henry Howard is deputy director of the American Legion Media & Communications Division.