Wounded veterans hit the slopes
Ryan Summerlin January 24, 2013
VAIL – Three days in Vail can change a man’s mind forever.
The Vail Veterans Program has the first of two winter groups of veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project in Vail this week, a group so packed with positive energy they make the Little Engine That Could seem like a total drudge.
“A place like this lets you see possibilities,” said Master Sergeant Cedric King. “You think about those possibilities and you stop asking how it can happen and start thinking how can it happen.”
Vail is a proving ground for these men, said Lt. Col. David Rozelle. Most were injured less than six months before they come here 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.
The Vail Veterans Program hosted its first group of veterans in March 2004, making this the 10th winter season of the program. 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.
King, for example, sees blessings from where he sits, especially when he looks at his lovely wife Khieda and their two adorable daughters, Amari, 9, and Khamya, 5.
“After all that’s happened, it’s such a blessing to be out of the hospital and in the outdoors,” Khieda said.
There may be some motivational speaking in his future. He’s sharing his story with other Wounded Warriors, and anyone else with mountains to climb.
“It’s an opportunity, not a tragedy,” King said. “I’ve had bad days, but these days are not bad days.”
His Alive Day is July 25, 2012, the day he was hit and lived. Like all these Wounded Warriors, he’s not only alive, he’s living.
King was serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, leading an early morning patrol of 35 American soldiers. They were covering an 800-meter area, about a half-mile.
“A half-mile is a lifetime,” King said.
At 5 a.m. the sun was up and so was the Taliban.
“They started taking shots. We returned fire and ran them off,” King said.
The Americans successfully crossed a stream, pursuing their attackers and found the facility from which the Taliban launched their attack. The Americans set a string of charges to clear a corridor, providing a safe place to walk.
With that done, King decided to check on the rest of the men, still outside.
The enemy is getting better.
The Taliban’s improvised explosive device was buried a few inches deep. It was so sophisticated that it took a 180-pound man to detonate it.
The thing is, though, 12 people stepped on it before King became the 13th.
King’s injuries changed his life, but he says it was for the better.
Rozelle understands. He’s been with the Vail Veterans Program since that first group came to town in March 2004. He’s a double amputee after getting hit in Iraq.
It was designed to be a one-time event, bring in 10 guys, teach them to ski and send them home, Rozelle said.
It was too good to do once. He said he knew it immediately, as soon as the Wounded Warriors arrived. Founder Cheryl Jensen said it took a day for her to realize it.
Jensen was moving from moment to moment. At the closing night dinner at the Vail firehouse, every one of those 10 men made his way up to her, thanked her and told her how much this meant to them.
On the last night of that first year, at the Vail firehouse dinner, a soldier named Heath Calhoun walked up to her and looked her straight in the eyes.
“Ma’am, I don’t know why you did this for us, but you changed my life,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun is now spending his life providing the same kind of encouragement for other Wounded Warriors.
“It took him saying that to make us understand what this means to them,” Jensen said.
Since then the Vail Veterans Program has run more than 1,000 soldiers and family members through the program.
The first year they hosted 10 veterans; the second year 20. They added a summer program that second year and 25 veterans showed up.
After that they were overwhelmed, Rozelle said.
“We change the way they think,” Rozelle said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.