Making memories, sharing adventures: Vail Veterans Program hosting summer family session this week
The Vail Veterans Program is supported by donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers. That allows all programs to be free for veterans and their families. For more information about the Vail Veterans Program, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit vailveteransprogram.org or call 970-476-4906.
VAIL — High-tech and low-touch is not a great way to live.
“Go outside, unplug and play,” said Kim Elliott, a recreation therapist with the Navy Medical Center in San Diego.
Elliott is one of dozens of people in town this week for the Vail Veterans Program’s summer session. This one focuses on families, because above all else, family matters.
“Often, people don’t understand the value of play,” Elliott said.
Get outside, and get disconnected from phones and other electronic gadgets.
“It’s great to go out in nature and away from technology and just have human connection,” Elliott said.
Aries and Karina Baluyot are representative of the Vail Veterans Program’s military heroes and the towering sacrifices of their families at home. Aries spent 15 months in Afghanistan as a combat field medic during 2007-08.
“It was a very active season,” he said, displaying a gift for amazing understatement.
He lost Afghan and American personnel. How many? “A lot,” he said, during that “very active” season.
He was so busy during his deployments that it all tended to flow past him.
He was also one of the first responders to the 2010 Haiti earthquakes on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson. The ship was supposed to hold 50 patients, but this is the military. They adapt and overcome. They put patients on the flight decks, the hangar bays, medical bays, the chow halls … just about anywhere they could accommodate hundreds of injured people.
“By the time I hit shore duty, life slowed down from 100 mph to about 5 mph. That’s when everything started hitting me. Almost everything triggered it,” Aries said.
He sought help and was diagnosed with combat post-traumatic stress disorder.
During all of this, Karina was home with their five children, now ages 6 to 14. One was born while Aries was deployed.
“I got to see pictures. I got to call her on the phone, but that’s it,” Aries said.
It’s the Baluyot crew’s second trip to Vail. The first was a 2016 winter trip.
“Kids remember everything,” Karina said, smiling.
It’s important that they go through it together.
“Kids experience trauma, as well,” Aries said.
The Vail Veterans Program helps, Elliott said. They went zip lining. Jeep tours are on the agenda. Rock climbing and all kinds of other adventures will fill the rest of their week.
“We get to enjoy it with the family. To watch my wife and kids, that’s everything,” Aries said.
Vail Veterans Program sessions can be like huge family reunions, and family is forever.
“You don’t want it to be temporary,” Elliott said. “You hope that people develop relationships. And once you’re part of the Vail Veterans Program family, you’re always part of the family.”
The Vail Veterans Program is one of the best programs they work with, Elliott said.
“It gets the gold star. It’s the gold standard among these programs,” Elliott said.
They tend to talk to one another when they’re outdoors doing outdoor things.
“It’s a more natural setting, less forced than a group session,” Elliott said.
Rock climbing, for example, can be therapy.
“It’s empowering for the kids to see the parents doing these sorts of things,” Elliott said.
Henry’s path to success
The Vail Veterans Program started 15 years ago by offering ski vacations to military personnel injured in the Middle East. Since then, it has expanded to include spouses and caregivers, families and professional training — the Path to Success.
Most start with the winter programs. Henry Escobedo did it the other way around.
The Path to Success helps veterans identify their strengths and create strategies to make their lives better emotionally, mentally, physically and professionally.
Henry Escobedo is in town from Houston for the second time. Last year was a program similar to the Path to Success. This week, his family came with him, wife, Mayra, son, Jairo, and daughter, Jade.
“It creates a cohesion and bonding. Just like I’ve gone through rough times, I know they have, too,” Henry Escobedo said. “By us being together as a family, it creates fulfillment, enjoyment, trust and, most of all, communication.”
Henry Escobedo is blind because he had Levers Optic Neuropathy, which attacks the optic nerves.
He was active duty for 12 years, deployed twice to the Middle East. Twice was plenty, he said.
The thing about Vail Veterans Program sessions is that stories are everywhere, every adult and every child.
They would like to have talked longer, but the mountains were inviting them to come out and play.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.