Heroes of the Heart | VailDaily.com

Heroes of the Heart

Kiley Nelson, left, and Nina Parker, right, chug beer boots while Jenny Bruns, middle, cheers on them and many other wives of wounded veterans who kicked off the Oktoberfest celebration Friday in Vail Village. The caregivers conference is the newest addition to the Vail Veterans Program.
Justin Q. McCarty | Special to the Daily |

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 Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom 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 warriors 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

VAIL — You hear them laughing before you see them smiling to their very marrow. Then they’re right there, 14 angelic women with eyes so bright you’d swear they were sent from heaven — and, of course, they were.

Then you’re thunderstruck by how young they are, and you think for a second that you might be in the wrong place because they look like dean’s list students trying out for the college dance team, or like they’re auditioning for a TV show.

“Young? Sometimes I don’t feel that young,” said Jasmine Dodson, who is, in fact, that young.

The Vail Veterans Program recently brought the 14 women to town for a respite. They’re the primary caregivers for their husbands, some of the most seriously injured combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Girls just wanna have fun, that’s why. And because they needed to be reminded that while they’re taking care of everything and everyone, they also need to take care of themselves.

For some, it was their first time away from their children and husbands, some of whom were hit in 2005 and 2006 — their Alive Day, the day they were hit and didn’t die.

“Today was one of the most fun days of my life,” said one of them. She was halfway through the first day. She talked fast and didn’t have time to chat because she was hurrying from Vendetta’s in Vail to a spa appointment at The Lodge at Vail.

Caring for the caregivers

Cheryl Jensen is executive director and founder of the Vail Veterans Program. She has plenty to do, bringing groups of injured combat veterans to the valley all year.

Here’s the thing, though. While the soldiers are learning to ski, fish, golf and about anything else they want, the wives and girlfriends were happy to be here, but were still caring for their husbands and children. Not much had changed except the location.

So the Vail Veterans Program brought the caregivers to town.

“The stories are humbling,” Jensen said.

If you can read or hear those stories without tears in your eyes, then your eyes are lying eyes.

The husbands were home with the kids. The women grinned as they glanced at their phones, reading texts that ask things like, “Where is (fill-in-the-blank)?”

One guy and his dad made a fried chicken dinner for the five kids.

“I guess they don’t need me all the time,” one of them said. “That’s good for me to know. It’s also good for them to know.”

Everything in common

The 14 women did yoga, had spa treatments, worked in a little counseling, enjoyed a session with a Buddhist monk, went whitewater rafting, opened Vail’s Oktoberfest and talked about everything, because they have everything in common — music, culture, pizza and does your triple amputee husband get in and out of his truck the same way my triple amputee husband does? And how does he operate the hydraulic lift that makes it possible?

“We had common ground before we were here. We already know each other’s stories,” Rachel Hallett said.

Love like you cannot imagine

Four of the 14 got married after their now-husbands were hit.

Rachel Hallett married retired United States Marine Corps Cpl. Jason Hallett in a small outdoor ceremony when they were in town for a Vail Veterans Program event last year.

Then she married him again in a big celebration in Windsor, where they just finished building a house through an organization that specializes in homes for injured combat veterans.

“The Vail Veterans Program gave myself and 13 other caregivers an unforgettable week that I will treasure forever,” Rachel said. “It was incredible to spend time with wives who are facing the same unique challenges. For most of us, it was the first time away from our husbands, and we went home feeling refreshed and connected. I am forever thankful that the Vail Veterans Program recognized what we do and provided us with a week that made us feel appreciated.”

Kiley Nelson is from Noblesville, Indiana. The Vail trip was her first time away.

Dodson is originally from San Diego but calls Walter Reed Army Hospital home these days.

Dodson got the call from a Marine liaison as she was on her way home. She had spent two weeks at the beach with her family, “to pass the time,” she said.

“When the phone rings and it’s that call, it doesn’t seem real,” Dodson said. “My son was 1 and a half then.”

Chatting during lunch one of them put it all in perspective.

“Women are the water bearers of the world,” she said.

Maybe, just maybe, they realize that they don’t have to bear it alone.

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

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