Vail firehouse hosts wounded veterans for dinner |

Vail firehouse hosts wounded veterans for dinner

Vail Veterans Program participants treated to a home cooked meal during their stay

From left, U.S Army specialist Dez Del Barba, Donna Giordano, Bryce Colyer, retired U.S. Air Force captain Andrew Miller and Ken Schanzer connect at the Vail Veterans Program's firehouse dinner.
Courtesy photo

For nearly two decades the Vail Veterans Program has been bringing military injured to the Vail Valley for adaptive snowsports, bonding, healing and a home cooked meal.

The participants of the program are invited to Vail via recommendations from staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland; Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas; and the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California. They come out to Vail for four days of skiing, snowboarding and ski biking with the help of the Vail Adaptive Ski and Snowboard instructors. From Day 1 to Day 4, changes are made and bonds are formed.

After a few nights of going to dinner at some of the valley’s favorite dining establishments and a night at the bowling alley, the vets are treated to a little home cooking courtesy of the Vail Fire and Emergency Services at Station 3 in West Vail. It’s a relaxed and welcoming setting where the fire crew, sponsors and community volunteers make the participants feel like they are being welcomed into their own homes.

“I think this whole week has just been fantastic, the way that everyone comes together and shows their appreciation, in all honesty, I don’t think I have ever felt so appreciated, seen and heard in a very long time,” said retired U.S. Army Sgt. Amanda Seward. “Once you get here, they welcome you with open arms and just envelop you and it is like a physical, huge hug from the whole community!”

Vail Fire and Emergency Services Station 3 transformed itself into a dining room for the participants of the Vail Veterans Program. Each year the group dines at the firehouse on the last night of the trip.
Tricia Swenson/Vail Daily

The word community comes up a lot during the firehouse dinner. Since starting the nonprofit organization in 2004, founder Cheryl Jensen has relied on the support of the local hotels, Vail Resorts and the Adaptive Ski and Snowboard School, area restaurants, the Safeway Foundation, 10th Mountain Whiskey, the local VFW and many more. Almost 20 years later, the bonds run deep.

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“A night like tonight is really about how this program is tied into the community of Vail,” said retired U.S. Army capt. Dawn Halfaker. Halfaker came to the Vail Veterans Programs as a participant in 2005 and is now a board member.

“To have been embraced by the people here who are also serving, whether it is the firehouse or the entire community at large, it gave me the connection and a sense of strength to feel like, ‘I can do this, I can do life, I can do normal,'” Halfaker said. It is very empowering for me to see this coming full circle. Here we are almost 20 years later, and the community is still focused and embracing this cause. It is just remarkable.”

Leading up to the event, Station 3 was busy getting ready for these very special guests. Trucks were moved to make room for the dinner tables and chairs, other tables are set up for the buffet and dessert, the bar is set up and the place was all cleaned up and ready for company. Although it takes the whole team to put this event on, the cooking is primarily done by one person. Josh Eaton is an engineer with Vail Fire and has been doing the cooking since 2013 and learned from the firefighter chef before him how to cook for the masses.

“Typically, we start the day before and grocery shop. Yesterday we filled up two grocery carts and went home and started the sauce which cooks overnight and then I’m in the kitchen all day today,” Eaton said. “Traditionally, the meal is lasagna, that is what I inherited from the chef who came before me and so we kept the lasagna and we also serve a baked ziti that is vegetarian,” Eaton said.

“The sauce is a conglomeration of a lot of different recipes so every year it is a little different. I think every year the goal is to make it a little bit better, but we’ll see, so hopefully we’ll deliver on that,” Eaton said.

Lasagna has been the traditional dish served at the annual Vail Veterans Program firehouse dinner for almost 20 years.
Tricia Swenson/Vail Daily

Rounding out the meal is salad and dressings and bread and butter donated by Avon Bakery and Deli. The meal is served by local volunteers, many of whom have served this firehouse meal for years.

“The whole community really does come together,” Eaton said.

Eaton said it means a lot to the team to serve those who pay the ultimate sacrifice.

“One thing I notice every year is they are obviously very grateful, and they give Cheryl (Jensen) a lot of awards and praise, but it does seem like they’ve bonded and you can tell there’s a lot of trauma, too. But after a few days of trying something new, maybe something like skiing that was never on their radar, they come out of that and think, ‘What else can I do?’ So, it really does seem to be such a great program,” Eaton said.

VFW Post 10721 Color Guard representatives David Stransjord and Laura Johnson surround Vail Veterans Program board member and past participant Dawn Halfaker at the Vail Fire and Emergency Services Station 3 on Mar. 9.

Vail Fire and Emergency Services chief Mark Novak addressed the crowd at the dinner on March 9.

“We truly welcome you into our home. It is such a privilege every year to have you come in and break bread with us and spend some time talking with you. It is one of our greatest honors of the entire year so thank you so much,” Novak said.

To learn more about the Vail Veterans Program, go to

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