Local organization hosts wounded warriors for skiing and snowboarding this week
Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins had to cancel his trip to the Vail Valley due to a family emergency. He was scheduled to speak Sunday at Homestake Peak School and guest teach yoga classes at Revolution Power Yoga on Tuesday and Wednesday.
VAIL — Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins was in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C., when two men from the Wounded Warrior Project came in to deliver him an invitation of hope.
Months before, on November 10, 2004, an improvised explosive device had detonated beneath a vehicle Nevins was on as an infantry squad leader in Iraq. Nevins’ helmet was split in half and he was ejected from the vehicle. The incident left Nevins with a traumatic brain injury, and resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee; his right leg, after more than 30 surgeries, was also removed below the knee.
During seven days of surgeries, Nevis said it was a time when he was preparing himself for a life of disappointment and loneliness.
“I was like, ‘My life is ruined, and I will never do any of the things I like to do again,’” he said. “‘What can a guy do with no legs?’ I thought. In my mind, there was like nothing.”
A life of competitive running, snowboarding, kayaking, rock climbing — blown away in an instant.
When the two founders Wounded Warrior Project showed up at Nevins’ hospital bedside, they were there to help him take back the life he thought he no longer had.
“They gave me a backpack, with everything that I needed to feel like a human being, and they told me, whatever you need, whatever your family needs, we will be there for you,” he said.
Wounded Warrior Project backpacks are filled with essential care and comfort items such as clothes, toiletries, playing cards, and more, to help ease the challenge of a hospital stay. Wounded service members receive the backpacks as they arrive at military trauma units across the United States.
Nevins said this Wounded Warrior Project offering and support was the most significant gift he has ever received in his life.
“It gave me a little bit of hope that replaced the self pity and fear,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, maybe I will be OK.’”
Nevins was planning to visit the Vail Valley to share his story for the Vail Veterans Program this week, but he is no longer able to make it because of a family emergency.
The Vail Veterans Program will carry on, bringing in 35 wounded warriors, guests and military medical staff to participate in outdoor rehabilitative activities — the program’s two winter events offer skiing and snowboarding in collaboration with sponsors such as Wounded Warrior Project. The local organization also hosts two summer events.
“Over the years, we have evolved to meet the needs of our wounded service population,” said Cheryl Jensen, founder and executive director of the Vail Veterans Program. “We have such demand within the hospitals of those wanting to attend.”
Healing the wounded
While Nevins was still in the hospital, Wounded Warrior Project invited him on a trip out to ski in Colorado. He said he was angry and offended at first, responding simply, “How can you even say that to me right now?”
Nevins said the reply he received was life-changing for him.
“We have the best equipment in the world,” explained the Wounded Warrior Project representative. “If the hospital clears you to go medically, we will get you to the bottom of the mountain.”
While Wounded Warrior Project, their rehabilitation programs and his times back on a snowboard did give Nevins a better outlook to a life without legs, he still struggled.
“I never understood how people could go into this dark spiral,” he said. “For the first time ever, I started to feel those dark thoughts, and I was not OK with it. So, I reached out for help.”
A friend recommended that Nevins start doing yoga, and he disagreed, arguing that that would require ankles. He did try and take to meditation, however, and he said it helped him reconnect with himself and refresh his perspective — to get outside of his head instead of staying stuck in it.
The friend who would become his first yoga instructor persisted on her initial recommendation, offering him three private lessons for him to give it a try.
The first lesson, he said, “sucked.”
“For the second lesson, I went back with my (prosthetic) legs on, but I asked her to let me try it with my legs off,” he said. “She was skeptical, but I did it, and it was amazing. I finally felt connected to the ground. I had been missing that connection to the earth — floating above it all the time with the two prosthetic legs.”
Nevins has since completed three yoga teacher trainings, initially without the intention of teaching yoga. But after helping a fellow veteran and friend find his way out of suicidal actions and onto a yoga mat, Nevins said he can’t not teach.
“‘Hey man, I want to thank you for setting me up with the yoga stuff,’” Nevins’ friend had said to him on a phone call. “The other day, I was having a really bad week, and I went to grab my gun, but I grabbed my yoga mat instead.’”
In 2006, Nevins was hired on to work for Wounded Warrior Project. He has since created Warriors Speak, a national campaign that teaches wounded warriors to share their stories in a powerful way. There are currently 14 wounded warriors and caregivers who share their stories of life and war.
“This is how I can give back to the organization who has helped me so much,” he said. “I’m not bleeding, my legs are fine, and I can do anything in the world.”
This hope is what Nevins continues to share with the world, and most importantly, his fellow warriors.
“‘I’m a healed warrior, and you are a wounded warrior,’” he said he tells his injured comrades, “‘and we have programs for you.’”