24 vets, 57 family members laugh and love in the Vail Veterans Program winter family session | VailDaily.com

24 vets, 57 family members laugh and love in the Vail Veterans Program winter family session

VAIL — Another massive explosion in Kandahar, Afghanistan, blows holes in highways and humans. The U.S. Navy's Michele St. Clair jumps up like she's on springs. This is not her first, nor will it be her last blast.

She doesn't have to rally her crew. They know their jobs — to dive into the belly of that beast to search the bodies for more bombs.

While the rest of us run for our lives, these true heroes run toward death, toward their own potential destruction.

Michele St. Clair and her crew arrive almost before the bomb blast stops echoing. They carefully and methodically sort through the carnage and rubble to search for more bombs.

Terrorists like to detonate bombs in crowded places. When help arrives, they'll often try to detonate another bomb to kill the heroes who flew to the rescue.

Michele St. Clair spent her time in Afghanistan assigned combat supply at the NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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It sounds innocuous and behind-the-lines. It isn't.

Michele St. Clair is retiring from the Navy in June. She suffers from PTSD and anxiety. It's not hard to figure out why.

Vail vacation

Brittany and Ashley St. Clair, Michele St. Clair's daughters, had never been to Vail before last month's Vail Veterans Program winter session. Michele St. Clair was deployed most of their lives; their dad raised the girls.

This was mother's and daughters' first vacation together. Look at the photos. Michele St. Clair is wearing a smile that goes to her very marrow.

"Seeing where my mom was two years ago compared to where she is this year is amazing," Brittany St. Clair said. "She's still conscious of her surroundings, but is more trusting."

The Vail Veterans Program has been working to help Michele St. Clair, and others like her, since 2004. They have it down — children and their parents together, having fun and making memories.

The program started with a handful of guys injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Vail Veterans Program founder and CEO Cheryl Jensen soon added families, reasoning correctly that families are on this journey together. They added PTSD victims a few years back, and then a caregivers session, because sometimes those women just need some time with those who know what they're going through.

The January family program hosted 24 wounded veterans, 57 family members and four military medical staff who participated in the four-day program in Vail.

"We found that these young men and women were having families. There was not an opportunity for the entire family to come out of the hospital setting and do something normal. It seems so simple, but it isn't," Jensen said.

For these men, women and kids, normal can become hard to find, Jensen said.

When they're packing for the trip or get on the plane, they start to feel normal. They're more relaxed and connected each day they're in town.

"It's magic. You provide the time and space, and you watch a lot healing take place," Jensen said.

Overcoming obstacles

These soldiers deal with obstacles all day every day. The Vail Veterans Program's goal is to help those injured in combat and their families get a look at what's possible.

"It's extremely humbling to see soldiers who are amputees or have mental and emotional problems, to go out there and show themselves and their families that they can do it," Brittany St. Clair said.

Among other things, they learn that they don't have to be tough all the time, she continued.

"You don't have to be a poster child for what you think a soldier should be," Brittany St. Clair said.

The soldiers careen down Vail Mountain on a monoski, adaptive snowboard or some other piece of adaptive ski gear. Some are missing limbs. All wear massive grins.

"None of them are saying 'woe is me.' They're saying 'Let's go out there and do this!' They're positive. It was beyond beautiful," Brittany St. Clair said. "It was encouraging to know I could do anything I put my mind to.

"It makes you appreciate what these people to in service to their country."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

About the Vail Veterans Program

• The Vail Veterans Program provides rehabilitative sports programs to United States military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the troops that support those efforts.

• The program is open to wounded warriors and their families, building confidence and hope through skiing, snowboarding and outdoor summer recreational activities.

• The Vail Veterans Program is a volunteer organization and hosts wounded military members and their families free of charge.

• Send donations or contact them at: P.O. Box 6473, Vail, Colorado 81658; 970-476-4906; email: vailveteransprogram@gmail.com”>class=”Hyperlink”>vailveteransprogram@gmail.com .

• Since 2004, the Vail Veterans Program has provided therapeutic, rehabilitative sports and recreation programs to severely injured military and their families.

• Throughout the year wounded veterans and their families come to Vail to participate in three, four, and five day programs including goal setting, adaptive sports training, family time, relationship building, and mentoring.

• VVP’s programs are free to all participants.

• The VVP also sponsors therapeutic retreats for individual families, provides psychologically healing services for VVP participants, and annually co-sponsors a team of military injured to run the Army 10-Miler race in Washington, DC.