Heroes and hilarity highlight Vail Veterans Program’s winter session
VAIL — The heroes are back in town. You hear their laughter before you encounter this Vail Veterans group.
Rabbi Joel Newman, of the B’Nai Vail congregation, is a retired Navy chaplain, one of those who gathered up body parts and loaded bleeding, wounded humans onto helicopters that would fly them to help and out of harm’s way.
“I saw them at their worst. I saw them taken away. Now, here they are,” he said, sweeping the Larkspur Restaurant packed with happy laughing veterans and their families.
“Do you notice how much they’re smiling?” he said, smiling himself.
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They way they smile and laugh, the Vail Veterans Program is a little like a class reunion.
There was the time a few years ago that Sgt. Matthew Melancon dragged Major Edward “Flip” Klein up the Adventure Ridge conveyor belt so they could go tubing.
They debate substantive issues, like whether jalapeno and cheese is better than peanut butter when you’re in the field.
It depends, Klein said, on what else is in your cargo pockets. A bottle of Cholula fits perfectly.
They go on all kinds of trips, but Vail is a favorite.
“It doesn’t feel like a conference,” Klein said. “It feels like a Vail vacation.”
They bring their entire families, which is important because families are going through it all together.
Klein isn’t married and doesn’t have children. He enjoys children, but it’s a little like enjoying horses while not owning one of your own.
Melancon has been here before. His first time he brought his battle buddy, the guy who loaded him onto the Blackhawk helicopter when he was hit. The perspective was important.
“He only got to see me banged up,” Melancon said.
Reality TV might get real
Sure, they get lots of individual attention, but mostly the Vail Veterans Program is about getting outside and having fun.
Before he was hit, Klein was an expert skier and snowboarder.
In Afghanistan, Klein and one of his lieutenants had an ongoing argument about who was better at snowsports.
Then he was hit — both legs, his right hand and fingers on his left hand. As he was being loaded onto the Blackhawk helicopter he hollered at the lieutenant, “Hey, I think you’re better now.”
But that was then.
Klein was in Vail three years ago on a Vail Veterans Program trip, and admitted it wasn’t great. His point of reference was the five days he spent skiing at Whistler before he shipped out to Afghanistan.
Now he’s not so sure he couldn’t take that lieutenant.
“Being on the mountain, returning to the snow and feeling that wind in my beard, I felt normal,” he said.
Klein was hit Oct. 22, 2012, when he stepped on a bomb, a dismounted IED. He left some pieces behind, but brought his humor and courage with him.
These days he lives in Seattle, “looking at trees and hunting for sasquatch.”
He’s developing a television show that would pair a wounded veteran with a non-wounded veteran and a celebrity, and then drop all three in the southern Alaska wilderness where they are most assuredly not at the top of the food chain.
The goal is to help people see the potential in wounded veterans.
“We’re not old or sick, and sometimes people don’t quite know how to take us,” Klein said. “We want to teach people what we’re capable of.”
Cody Irons did three tours in Afghanistan, then lost both arms eight months ago in a motorcycle accident. He has two prosthetic arms that he operates with remarkable skill. For example, when the veterans went bowling Monday night, he threw a spare.
“You take a few seconds to think about it, then you do it,” Irons said, describing both bowling and a philosophy of life.
The cable system he wears has been around since the Civil War. He’ll have an electric setup soon, but for now he makes his old school setup do what he wants it to do.
Irons’ friend and caregiver, Jacob Thomas, is proudly wearing a Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks jersey this week. Occasionally, some Bronco fan offers to point him toward a sporting goods store so he can swap it for a Peyton Manning or Von Miller, an offer he graciously and politely declines. Loyalty matters with these people.
Dillon Behr lives in the Washington, D.C., area after retiring from the Army as a sergeant first class.
He was injured in 2008 and made his first trip with the Vail Veterans Program in 2009.
“I was still on lots of meds, so it was a little unfocused. I think I had a great time,” he said grinning.
Harvey Naranjo is with Walter Reed and was in Vail with the first group in 2004. That group was just a handful of guys, and now they take over the Larkspur every morning for breakfast. The Larkspur, by the way, doesn’t generally offer breakfast, but they do when Vail Veterans Program groups come to town.
Along with the numbers the spirit has also grown, he said.
“A lot of people have their beginnings here, their return to what’s possible for them,” Naranjo said.
Naranjo works around it all the time, and says you can get desensitized.
“It’s inspiring. They’re always so positive,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.