Heroes just wanna have fun: Vail Veterans Program hosts its latest winter group of heroes | VailDaily.com

Heroes just wanna have fun: Vail Veterans Program hosts its latest winter group of heroes

VAIL — Dan Strausbaugh flew Navy jets, so it should surprise no one that he flies snowboards and mountain bikes the same way.

Strausbaugh is in town with the Vail Veterans Program's March group, the second of two winter groups. He was in town last summer with folks who share his jet pilot mindset — faster and higher is better.

You may recall Strausbaugh's picture on the Vail Daily cover last summer, flying down Vail Mountain on a mountain bike, his hair wafting behind him and a massive grin on his face.

"I just sent it! That's as close as I've ever been to flying while on the ground," Strausbaugh said.

It took his confidence to a whole new level.

"I'll try anything," he said.

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A soldier's story

If Lt. Dan Strausbaugh hasn't heard every Lieutenant Dan/Forest Gump joke ever told, he made them up.

While Strausbaugh was in Navy flight school, nerve damage affected the use of his right hand. Doctors found a tumor devouring the nerves from his right hand to his shoulder. He lost the use of his right hand and could no longer fly. The Navy kicked him loose.

He opted to amputate his hand, which was "useless and floppy," and try prosthetics.

He has a prosthetic attachment for everything — kayak paddles, ski poles, snowboarding, flyfishing, mountain biking. … If you can imagine it, he can do it.

He has done all kinds of programs through Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, including the Vail Veterans Program.

"This one over last summer was a turning point for me; doing the types of activities that we did really pushed me to my limit and made me want to do more," he said.

He started competitive snowboarding this winter. One of his attachments helps him fling himself out of a start gate in snowboardcross competitions.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He and friend Kyle Cook trained in Steamboat Springs with the U.S. Paralympic team with an eye toward the next winter Paralympics.

Gap years

This is his gap year, or years, or whatever he feels like it should be.

When he was working through chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, he had all sorts of vocational notions, since flying Navy jets was no longer an option.

A buddy advised him to take it easy and enjoy himself for a while and then worry about what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I've been doing that in the most physical manner I can," he said. "If it's physical and demanding, I'm getting after it."

And that leads him back around to snowboarding, mountain biking and the Vail Veterans Program.

"That's what I love about this program and others like it," he said.

About Vail Vets

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.

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 they did. That was 2004. These days, Lindsay Humphreys is running the programs that have hosted more than 1,000 people.

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

About the Vail Veterans Program

• The Vail Veterans Program is a volunteer organization supported by donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers. That allows all programs to be free for veterans and their families.

• The Vail Veterans Program provides rehabilitative sports programs to U.S. military personnel who have been severely injured while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and 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.

• For more information about the Vail Veterans Program, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit vailveteransprogram.org, send donations to P.O. Box 6473, Vail, CO 81658, email vailveteransprogram@gmail.com, or call 970-476-4906.