VAIL — Walk into the Larkspur where the Vail Veterans Program group is enjoying breakfast, and you’re struck by two things.
First, they’re young.
Second, they’re laughing and enjoying themselves and one another.
Take Wednesday morning, for example. One of the Vail Veterans Program staff made an announcement that strep throat was spreading around the group, and they should speak up if they have a scratchy throat. Three dozen guys all started fake coughing, followed immediately by real laughing.
Triumph over tragedy
The Vail Veterans Program is hosting the second of two winter groups of Wounded Warriors in Vail this week. Everyone in town has a true triumph-over-tragedy story, including the soldiers’ families.
Take Mario Parilla and Miguel Rodriguez, two veterans in their 20s. They’re brothers-in-law; Rodriguez is married to Parilla’s sister. They joke constantly about whether Rodriguez is good enough for Parilla’s sister or whether Rodriguez immeasurably improved the family by marrying into it.
Parilla now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is still on active duty with the Army. Rodriguez lives in Miami.
They’re both originally from Colombia and made their way to the U.S. They joined the Army and were deployed to Afghanistan. They’re in Vail with the Vail Veterans Program on an all-expenses-paid experience with their families because Parilla was shot and Rodriguez was injured in a Humvee accident. There’s a longer story, but they were anxious to start skiing on a bluebird Colorado morning.
“It allows me to integrate with other vets and learn from their experiences,” Parilla said.
What you do — as in skiing or snowboarding — depends on your injury, Rodriguez patiently explained. What you don’t do depends on you, he said.
“I never thought I could snowboard with my injuries,” Parilla said.
He never thought he would surf either, but he and some other Wounded Warriors will soon take a trip to California to try it.
Parilla’s Alive Day — the day they were hit but didn’t die — was in 2008. Rodriguez’s was in 2011. And while they laugh and joke, they don’t tend to look back or talk about it. They’re moving on with the rest of their lives.
“What I gain is what I’m going to have for the rest of my life,” Parilla said.
Everyone’s an inspiration
This is ski instructor Josh Perkins’ 18th Vail Veterans group. They’re all different, and they’re all inspiring.
“Every session is different because the people are different, but they all see the possibilities,” Perkins said.
Some have never seen snow and can’t wait to touch it and play in it. Some ski and snowboard who didn’t think they could, Perkins said.
But there’s almost always more.
“Some get to fall in love with their wives all over again and reconnect with their families,” Perkins said.
Pete Seibert, Jr. is in his third year as a volunteer ski instructor with the Vail Veterans Program.
“You don’t really know what strength is until you see these guys and what life has given them and how they’re working to get as much as they can from it,” Seibert said.
The warriors ski, they snowboard, they laugh, they live. Most were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan multiple times. Some are gone for years at a time — sometimes for the entirety of their children’s childhoods.
The Vail Veterans Program is a proving ground for these men, says Lt. Col. David Rozelle, one of the program’s founders. Most were hit less than six months before they come to Vail with their families. They learn what they can do. They’re already convinced there’s nothing they can’t.
“It helps that they’re a bunch of fearless warriors,” Rozelle says.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.