Thompson: Honoring the Vail Veterans Program (column) | VailDaily.com

Thompson: Honoring the Vail Veterans Program (column)

Pete Thompson
Special to the Daily
Capt. Pete Thompson, a local Vail Valley veteran, interviews Col. Greg Gadson, left, Lt. Jason Redman and Capt. Dawn Halfaker at a recent Vail Symposium event.
Vail Veterans Program

It started 15 years ago, when one of our Vail neighbors met a combat-injured Army captain in a hospital far, far away. I wish I could have heard that conversation, but they made a pact that changed the world. It went something like: “You organize, I’ll get the troops.”

That pact created the Vail Veterans Program. This year that program is being honored for hosting over 3,000 seriously-wounded American veterans and their families to bask in the magic of Vail, from participating in skiing and horseback riding to savoring high mountains and long life vistas.

To commemorate this 15th anniversary, the Vail Symposium hosted an evening presentation entitled “The Journey Home: Celebrating the Resilience of the Human Spirit.”

Three of the Vail Veterans Program’s Purple Heart recipients participated in a live interview:

  • Col. Greg Gadson is a West Point graduate with two Super Bowl rings who lost both legs in an IED explosion.
  • Capt. Dawn Halfaker, also a West Point graduate, was a Military Police commander when her vehicle was hit by RPG rockets.
  • Lt. Jason Redman is a 20-year Navy SEAL whose team was chasing an al-Qaida target when the machine guns started firing.

When you enter the room, you see old injuries — missing limbs and angry scars.

When you listen, you hear tales of war, combat, injury and recovery.

When you leave, you remember the wisdom and grace of gaining another life.

These Purple Heart warriors answered questions posed by one of our local veterans, Capt. Pete Thompson. Pete asked a couple of easy questions concerning their entry into the military, but then asked the difficult and probing questions about their combat injuries.

“Tell us about the moment you were wounded and what you remember; tell us about your life being saved and the medical healing; tell us about the psychological scars and your recovery.”

Lt. Redman described walking into a night ambush and being hit at close range by rounds from an al-Qaida machine gun.

Three bullets slammed into my chest, and two bullets hit my left elbow,” he said. “Another bullet hit the left side of my head and exited through my nose, dislocating my left eye.”

Capt. Halfaker literally had her right arm blown off when an RPG rocket hit her vehicle, yet she described driving, in the damaged and bloody Humvee, back to base and medical treatment. Col. Gadson, whose lower body was mutilated by an IED explosion that threw him 10 meters out of his command car, remembered his men, to include his commander, with mournful expressions, rallying to retrieve and stabilize him.

All three expressed sincere appreciation that the American military provided them with the best equipment and the most rapid responses. Lt. Redman said that the armor vest that shielded his chest was absolutely life-saving. Capt. Halfaker remembered that although her Humvee had been hit twice by RPG rockets and gunfire, it drove them away from the ambush. And Col. Gadson remembered the sound of the Medivac helicopter which took him to the field hospital where he received 129 blood transfusions. All three said that because of the military’s focus on the “Golden Hour” following a traumatic injury, they survived.

Then, Capt. Thompson asked them what the Vail Veterans Program meant to them. This is the question that took their breath away. This is the question that they answered with their rejuvenated spirit. Unanimously, they said that this small, privately-funded program that brought them to the gorgeous mountains and the living activities of skiing and snowboarding was transformative.

“It saved my life.”

They each emphasized the many different aspects of the VVP: family, friends, activity, involvement, humor, learning, and learning that the only disability in life is a bad attitude.  

Col. Gadson described sharing a life experience with his family on the back of a horse less than five months after his legs were amputated. In describing that moment away from the hospital, but securely with his family, he had a tear in his voice.

To close, Capt. Thompson reiterated why the Symposium was honoring this noble program: “Please understand that combat injuries are something that we should all know about, because it is happening to our children, to our American soldiers, somewhere in the world … every day. And the Vail Veterans Program is a transformative experience to rebuild confidence, rebuild friendships, and rebuild lives … every day.

Pete Thompson lives in Vail, is a part-time instructor for Colorado Mountain College and Vail Resorts, and he is a member of the local veterans’ organization. He can be reached at 970-476-7575