A decade of healing; Wounded warriors come to Vail Valley
Ryan Summerlin March 10, 2013
VAIL – The Vail Veterans Program has been helping wounded warriors heal for the past 10 years.
During those 10 years, more than 1,000 people, wounded warriors and their guests, have come to town. It’s doesn’t cost them a dime. They’ve given enough, said Cheryl Jensen, Vail Veterans Program founder and executive director.
Their stories are disturbingly similar. They place their foot or roll a truck tire somewhere they thought was safe, there’s an explosion and in that instant their body, mind and world all change. Maiming is instant; healing takes time.
Five or six months later, some are brought to Vail for a ski trip, often their first trip outside the hospital.
After 10 years, it never ceases to amaze how much they accomplish and heal in the three days they’re here.
Capt. Seth Nieman made his first trip to Vail last week. He came straight from Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He was hit Nov. 27, when his vehicle rolled over a 300-pound improvised explosive device. Thirteen surgeries later, he said the Vail Veterans Program was his first chance to go do something fun.
Nieman was the starting right tackle on West Point’s football team for four years, so he knows about hard work and results.
He was in a bi-ski last week. Some wise guy asks Nieman how fast it goes.
“It goes really fast with me in it,” he said grinning.
The first day he could barely balance. By day three he was skiing black diamond runs on Vail Mountain.
Sgt. Rob Easley’s job in the Army was explosive ordnance disposal.
He and his crew were clearing IEDs up the road and wanted to see how things were progressing. There was a ditch next to the road they were driving on, so he decided to take a look. The guy clearing the ditch helped him down and started walking away.
Rob took one step and … “Boom!”
That was Oct. 15, 2012.
On Oct. 15, 2012, Rob’s wife, Megan, was in Walter Reed visiting one of their best friends who’d been hit weeks before.
When he was in southern Afghanistan, Rob called Megan about the same time every day. It was about that time of day when her phone rang, but she knew right away this time was different. She heard a woman’s voice in the background, and there were no women in his area.
As he tried to explain what had happened, her mind careened in millions of directions at once.
He finally broke the tension when he said, “I guess I won’t be running that marathon.”
Then again, he might. Rob used to snowboard. He still does. The folks at Walter Reed gave him new knees. He hadn’t even walked on them when he strapped them on to go snowboarding. You won’t be stunned to learn that he was great.
How healing happens
We’re told the wars are winding down, but the killing and maiming don’t stop.
“The need has not gone away,” Jensen said.
Last week, 30 recently wounded United States military veterans and their guests spent a week skiing Vail. Ruth DeMuth and her Vail Adaptive Ski School teaches them to ski, but they learn so much more.
Vail is a proving ground for these men, said Lt. Col. David Rozelle, co-founder of the Vail Veterans Program. Most were hit less than six months before they came to Vail with their families to ski. 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 said.
Rozelle understands. He’s a double amputee after getting hit in Iraq.
The Vail Veterans Program was designed to be a one-time event, bring in 10 guys, teach them to ski and send ’em home, Rozelle said.
They knew immediately it was too good to do once.
Jensen called Jake Savona, an engineer with the Vail Fire Department, to ask if the firefighters could host the warriors for dinner.
“We always say yes. We’re the fire department,” Savona said.
At that first firehouse dinner, a double amputee wanted to sit in an engine. They made it happen. Most years, some of the wounded warriors want to slide down the fire pole, and they always get to.
“We always say yes,” Savona said smiling. “We’re the fire department.”
At that first closing night dinner in the Vail firehouse, every one of those 10 men thanked Jensen and told her how much this meant to them.
“In the 10 years, we’ve heard that many, many times. That’s an incredibly powerful statement,” Jensen said.
That first year was 10 guys, the second year 20. They added a summer program that second year and 25 men showed up.
After that they were overwhelmed, Rozelle said.
Three days in Vail changes lives.
“We change the way they think,” Rozelle said.
How it began
The Vail Veterans Program was born through Jensen’s coat program. She badgers ski resorts around Colorado and the country to donate the outdoor coats and pants their employees wore and sends them to Third World countries.
Jensen was in Washington, D.C., meeting with her Department of Defense contact, arranging to have the cold weather gear shipped. The woman had been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center earlier that day and was telling Jensen about it.
Jensen said, “We need to bring them skiing.”
And so they did.
“We can bring entire families to be part of this program. They’ve all experienced something tragic and they all need healing,” Jensen said.
The long-term goal is to make these wounded warriors alumni of the Vail Veterans Program, to make it part of their lives for the rest of their lives.