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January 29, 2014
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Vail Veterans Program brings vets back to town

VAIL - Technology is good, but a good attitude is better.

That’s the first thing you notice when you walk into a room filled with Wounded Warriors and their families, in town for this winter’s Vail Veterans Program. Adaptive ski and snowboard technology has improved by light years, but it’s their positive attitudes that makes these heroes soar.

Take Alejo Amaris and his family, for instance.

“This is the first trip that we’ve been able to bring the entire family,” Amaris said. “Other trips it’s just been me and my wife.”

Alejo and Jazmin have two children, Antwan, 9, and Natasha, 13. For most of these young heroes, it’s a chance to get together with other soldiers and bring the family along.

“It has helped our children understand that it’s not just their dad. There are other soldiers,” Alejo said. “This one sticks out because it’s the whole family.”

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, a lifetime — some of their children’s entire lifetimes.

The Amaris kids are among 40 or so in Vail this week with the Vail Veterans Program. That means the kids are skipping school for a few days of skiing — a very good cause, Alejo says.

When asked what she’ll tell her teachers back in San Antonio, Texas, Natasha smiled and said, “I’ll tell them I’m having the time of my life.”

“This is a great trip, Alejo said. “The transportation, the lodging, the food, the instructors. Everything is taken care of and everything is wonderful.”

Attitude is everything

Barbara Szwebel is with the Vail Adaptive Skiing Program, and says they have so many instructors volunteering that they have a waiting list. Scott Giffin is one of this session’s instructors.

“They’re amazing. They have such a tremendous attitude. They’re already used to working hard and they’ve been through some tough times.” Giffin said. “They’ve gotten up from much worse than falling on skis or snowboards.”

The Vail Veterans Program is a proving ground for these men, says Lt. Col David Rozelle. Most were hit less than six months before they come here 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.

Their Alive Day is the day they were hit and didn’t die, and each of these heroes has one. Alejo’s Alive Day came in 2006 when he was hit in a mortar attack. He lost everything but his determination. When his uniform caught fire he was burned over 70 percent of his body.

He’s snowboarding, and he smiles all day every day.

Breakfast for champions

Larkspur has been part of this since the very beginning, March 2004 when the Vail Veterans Program brought its first group to town.

Anthony Larosa is the Larkspur executive chef. He and his staff do breakfast five or six days a year. Most of those days are for the Vail Veterans Program. It’s a labor of love, Larosa says.

“The veterans are great and we want to support them and give back to them as much as we can,” Larosa said.

“I can’t remember a time when didn’t do this. I can’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t,” said Allana Smith, Larkspur’s director of operations. “We’re fortunate to get to do this event. These guests are very gracious and appreciative. They’re happy to be in Vail and be part of this, and so are we.”

They do this twice a year, January and March, and each time the staff is taken aback by the veterans. When people think of veterans, they think of old guys.

“These are young families. There must be 40 kids here,” Smith said, her eyes sweeping the room.

The kids sound like kids. Three tots from California had never seen snow, so they spent part of their Vail vacation building a snowman out behind their hotel. They stormed the Larkspur kitchen to get its nose — a carrot, of course. The Larkspur staff came up with a red, white and blue July 4 top hat to complete the ensemble.

Three days to change forever

Three days in Vail can change a man’s mind forever.

The Vail Veterans Program has the first of two winter groups of Wounded Warriors in Vail this week, a group so packed with positive energy they make the Little Engine That Could seem like a total drudge.

Everyone in every group is a triumph-over-tragedy story. These Wounded Warriors are not the men they used to be. They’re more, and so are their families.

Rozelle understands. He’s a double amputee after getting hit in Iraq. He’s been with the Vail Veterans Program since that first group came to town, March 2004.

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 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jan 29, 2014 10:40PM Published Jan 29, 2014 05:09PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.