The Vail Veterans Program not only changed Chris Fesmire's life, he says it saved his life.
Without it, he says he'd be dead in the gutter. Instead, the Vail Veterans Program took him and a few other Wounded Warriors helicopter skiing recently in Canada.
"It's the best sporting experience possible," said Daniel Riley, another member of the Wounded Warriors who made the trip. "It's focused on skiing. Everything else is pushed out of your mind."
Cheryl Jensen Vail Veterans Program founder did it four years ago and said it was the best ski experience of her life. She started thinking about how it might work for a bunch of guys on monoskis.
"Maybe it can happen ... maybe," Jensen recalls thinking.
Jensen handles logistics and pretty much everything else for the Vail Veterans Program.
"It's beyond anything we thought we could do," Jensen said.
Jensen wondered if maybe the signs were lining up to indicate they shouldn't do it. The weather was bad. The logistics were a nightmare.
Riley, though, was totally enthusiastic about it.
"Are we going? We're going aren't we? When are we going?" Riley asked.
And go they did. They skied three days and had a great time.
Vets are lining up to try it, some going so far as to sing "Oh Canada."
"If you love skiing, it's the ultimate," Riley said.
This group of Wounded Warriors have all been to Vail a few times to ski as part of the Vail Veterans Program.
Vail is a proving ground for these men, said Lt. Col. David Rozelle. He's a double amputee after getting hit in Iraq.
Fesmire says he's had a tough time since he was hit in Iraq. The Humvee he was in rolled over a double stacked anti-tank mine.
Rozelle has been with the Vail Veterans Program since that first group came to town 10 years ago.
Most of its members were hit less than six months before they came to Vail with their families to ski. They learn what they can do and become convinced there's nothing they can't do.
"It helps that they're a bunch of fearless warriors," Rozelle said. "It really is the best kind of therapy. It teaches you how to live. It helps you adapt to your new life, whatever it may be."
Too good to do once
So there they were, in the Canadian Rockies, climbing out of a helicopter and careening down mountains at insane rates of speed. They laughed all the way down.
Riley's guide looked him straight in the eye and ordered him to "follow my tracks exactly."
Riley's not in the military any longer and doesn't tend to take orders. So of course, Riley launched himself off a cornice.
The Vail Veterans Program was designed to be a one-time event: Bring in 10 guys, teach them to ski, send 'em home, Rozelle said.
It was too good to do once. He said he knew it immediately, as soon as the Wounded Warriors arrived.
At that first closing night dinner at the Vail firehouse, every one of those 10 men made his way up to Jensen, thanked her and told her how much this meant to them.
Since then, the Vail Veterans Program has run more than 1,000 soldiers and family members through the program.
"We change the way they think," Rozelle said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.