Heroes having fun: Vail Veterans Program hosts injured vets, families
About the Vail Veterans Program
• The Vail Veterans Program provides rehabilitative sports programs to U.S. military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and to the troops who 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 warriors and their families free of charge.
• Send donations or contact them at P.O. Box 6473, Vail, CO 81658; 970-476-4906; firstname.lastname@example.org.
VAIL — Briana Irwin’s smile was as bright as the Colorado sky as she careened down a zipline.
The Irwin clan is in Vail as part of this week’s Vail Veterans Program group.
Twelve-year-old Briana flashed a smile as she admitted she was hesitant about ziplining. It’s OK to be apprehensive, even scared, said an amputee who encouraged her. The woman looked Briana straight in the eye, pointed to where her leg used to be, then at Briana’s two healthy legs and told Briana, “If I can do it on one leg, you can do it.”
And they did.
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These wounded soldiers and their families 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.
The Irwin clan, like so many others, is in this together. Lenny is an Army helicopter pilot working to get back in the air. He was rehabbing at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas.
This Vail Veterans Program vacation became available, and they jumped on it.
“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to take a family vacation,” Lenny said.
Families meet other families who are thrilled to learn that they’re not alone, that there are others who live with the same victories and the struggles, said Jade, Lenny’s wife.
“For our children to see this, to experience this, is invaluable,” Jade said. “No matter what life throws at you, you can still follow your dreams. We see there are other families and understand their struggles, and you don’t often see that.”
One soldier’s story
Lenny was on his fourth combat deployment to the Middle East. The people who love him also worried about him, as loved ones do.
“I was always worried,” said Collin, Lenny’s and Jade’s son. “When he deployed I cried for a week.”
Lenny was responding to troops in a firefight who needed some air cover.
While the rest of us run for our lives, these true heroes run toward death, toward their own potential destruction.
Lenny was dodging enemy fire when his helicopter hit some overhead wires, which damaged his helicopter’s stabilizer. He had what the Army euphemistically calls a “hard landing.” It’s only a crash if somebody dies, Lenny explained. Nobody died, but only because Lenny Irwin could fly a helicopter through a physics experiment.
Lenny suffered all kinds of injuries. But because you can’t keep a good man down, he slapped metaphorical and psychological bandages on them and kept flying.
Eventually, the injuries became debilitating and grounded him.
He’s recovering and vows to be back in the air soon.
Lightning strikes twice
Jon Powers was hit in 2005 when an improvised explosive device threw a piece of shrapnel through the front of the vehicle in which he was riding. That was before the military started reinforcing its vehicles and roadside bombs would tear through them like tissue paper.
He recovered and went back to the war. Fast forward to November 2016, and Powers was patrolling in a house. An improvised claymore mine was lurking to his right, and he triggered it. It blew off part of his right leg, he lost a couple feet of intestines, his right ear drum, damaged an artery or two, somehow damaged his left hand and left him with “numerous holes” in his body.
He’s in a wheelchair, and also generally excellent spirits. Perspective, he said, is everything.
“The injuries you suffer are the cards you’re dealt,” Powers said.
He spends time in what he calls the “humble room,” a spot in his hospital where the real hard cases fight through the pain.
There’s the guy who’s a quad amputee. He had a bilateral arm transplant. Through the miracles of modern medicine and hard work, he’ll be able to use those arms.
The good stuff lasts
Almost a decade and a half ago, Cheryl Jensen put together the first Vail Veterans Program. She, her husband Bill and a bunch of their friends did it on a whim and a shoestring with a dozen or so veterans.
The last night of that first year, the Vail firefighters hosted dinner in the firehouse.
As that first dinner wound down, Jensen figured it was a one-time deal. But those veterans came up to her, one-by-one, and all said the same thing.
“This has been one of the best experiences of my life. Please keep doing this. I know so many others who would love this.”
And so Jensen did another, then another, then another.