VAIL - You notice a few things when the Vail Veterans Program brings the latest group of Wounded Warriors to town.
First, as the wars are supposed to be winding down, the groups are getting bigger, and their injuries are getting worse.
Second, there's nothing they can't adapt to or overcome, and the same is true of the businesses and guide services that host them.
Third, they're young, and they have their whole lives before them, but they nearly died before their time.
Their largest summer group, 29 warriors, was in town this week. Throw in a few wives, some children and relatives, and that presents a world of possibilities.
A quadruple amputee wanted to go rafting. They made it happen. There was also ziplining, which creates its own set of challenges, but nothing the guides and warriors can't overcome.
"There's not one business or guide service that doesn't think this is the best group they have all year," said Cheryl Jensen, who runs the veterans program.
Of the 29 Wounded Warriors, more than half have been injured within the past year.
"We've witnessed an increase in the number of Wounded Warriors and their levels of injury over the past couple of years," said Harvey Naranjo, an occupational therapist at Walter Reed National Medical Center. "Vets are returning with multiple limb losses and secondary medical issues."
Heather Miller is a recreational therapist working with military personnel in San Antonio. She has been sending warriors to the Vail Veterans Program for years, and this summer she finally came along.
She calls it "divergent ther-apy." She also calls it fun.
"The endorphins are pumping all day. They're not talking about or thinking about their injuries or their pain," Miller said.
The Vail Veteran's Program is a Colorado nonprofit providing rehabilitative sport programs to recently wounded United States military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the troops that support those efforts. Wounded warriors and their families are provided, free of charge, the opportunity to spend time together away from the hospital in the Colorado outdoors.
A soldier's story
Getting hit is so quick, and rehab is so slow.
On Army Specialist Chris Tarte's left leg is a contraption that adjusts to help bones that were broken in 10 places grow back together slowly. He adjusts it a little and they grow a little, healing a bit at a time.
It's a metaphor for the whole Wounded Warriors program.
Tarte had been in the Army less than a year and "down range" in Afghanistan for two months. On Oct. 29, 2011, he was riding in a MRAP - Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.
He and his crew were assigned to clear a route for other vehicles and troops. That means locating improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, so they could travel safely.
"We found one!" Chris said laughing, recounting the story of his Alive Day during breakfast Friday morning in the Marriott. Alive Day is the day they were hit but didn't die.
An MRAP is not supposed to blow up when explosives and small arms fire hit it. Theirs didn't. If it had, or if Tarte and his crew had been in some other type of vehicle, they'd all be dead. They're not. Tarte was the most severely injured of the four-man crew.
"I can't complain," he said, and then doesn't.
He said he's grateful his crew survived and that he was the most severely injured. He's grateful his wife, Natalie, took it so well when he called from Afghanistan, which the Army made him do.
"I was asking, 'What am I supposed to tell her?'" Tarte said. "They tell you everything else you're supposed to do."
Of course he was in agony, and of course he was scared to death. It was 7:30 a.m. at home. Hours after he'd been hit, he picked up the phone and dialed his wife's phone number. She was pregnant with their third child. Both she and the other two were sleeping when the phone rang. She picked it up and heard that it was Chris.
"How's your day?" he asked.
"Well, it's 7:30, so it hasn't really started yet," she said.
He stopped, hesitating before plunging ahead.
"Well, I don't have my right foot any more," he told her.
She said she thought he was joking, remembering the time he'd called to tell her he broke his finger in a basketball game. With all that rolling around in her head, she thought, "How did you lose your right foot in a basketball game?"
It wasn't a game, and it still isn't.
Yet a few weeks ago, he stood on a surfboard for the first time. This week, with the Vail Veterans Program, there's rafting, golf, ziplining and so much else.
He says Natalie is supportive and
Like the time his doctor told him he could walk a little on his crutches, so Natalie set his wheelchair about 10 feet from the car, reminding him what the doctor said.
"But I can't walk that far," he told her.
So she moved it two feet closer.
Chris' eyes light up and he smiles at Natalie when he tells the story, talking about how lucky he is, how he and Natalie are getting through this together, but how she will have no part of babysitting him and how good that can be.
The enemy had made this IED almost invisible, hiding it under the road and cleverly disguising its location, and theirs.
"They're getting better," Tarte said. "Some people seem to think they're stupid. They're not."
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.