Vail vet: ‘It’s like freedom all over again’
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado ” Matt Keil just wants to go fast and feel the fresh air on his face.
He hasn’t felt adrenaline like that since before he became a quadriplegic almost two years ago. He can’t ride a roller coaster or go for a run, but he can get on a special guided monoski and fly down the mountain as if the day he was shot in the neck in Iraq never happened.
“I just want to go as fast as I can,” he said.
Keil, just like every other wounded veteran in the Vail Veterans Program, remembers the exact date when his life changed ” Feb. 24, 2007. He remembers getting shot by an Iraqi sniper, and his fellow soldiers coming to his rescue ” it was just four months into his second tour.
“It felt like someone knocked me out; I remember it all,” he said.
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He never walked again after that day.
It’s because of people like Keil that Cheryl Jensen, founder of the Vail Veterans Program, set out to give wounded veterans a chance to feel like they did before their lives changed. She wants them to feel like they can accomplish whatever they set out to do, regardless of the path their lives have now taken.
Jensen started the program six years ago thinking it would be a one-time thing ” she’s now hosting four programs per year, two each in the winter and summer. In the winter, veterans learn how to ski and snowboard, and in the summer they do anything from fly-fishing to kayaking to horseback riding.
“I’m hooked,” she told the group in town this week for one of the two winter programs.
She fights back tears as she welcomes each new group of veterans, almost all of whom arrive in wheelchairs. She said the months of planning and work she puts into the program are so worth it when she finally gets to see their smiling faces.
From amputees to spinal cord injuries to paraplegics to burn victims, the Vail Veterans Program has seen it all ” and there really hasn’t been an injury its instructors can’t work around.
Instructors from the Vail Resorts’ Adaptive Program, which provides equipment and lessons to people with disabilities, teach the veterans how to ski or snowboard. Lindsay Blanton, who manages that program, said the instructors love teaching the veterans so much because they’re just so devoted to learning.
“They’re so tough; falling isn’t their first concern,” Blanton said. “It’s fun to work with someone that motivated.”
Motivation to move fast is also why Carla Best loves to ski. She’s done it several times since she lost a leg after a bomb attack in Iraq, Oct. 9, 2004.
She’s in a wheelchair because she’s been having problems with both her real and prosthetic leg, so she’s using a monoski for the first time this week.
She misses what it feels like to move quickly ” it takes a lot longer to get around now, but skiing is something she can do that brings her back to the days before her injury.
“It’s like freedom all over again,” Best said.
All the veterans still have a competitive side, too, Best said. They egg each other on all day and compete against themselves more than each other. And the sweet victory comes when they can laugh about the day and sit amongst friends who truly understand what each other has been through, she said.
Jensen said the program really focuses on the veterans’ abilities. The instructors find what they can do and what they’re comfortable doing, and they take it from there.
The program gets these men and women outside and helps them realize they can still do so much, even if they have more limited use of their bodies than before, Jensen said.
For Richard Doyle, just getting up and out of the house was something he couldn’t do for years after his injury in August of 2005. His leg was trapped under a Humvee in Iraq for 45 minutes before he could get out. He laid there in pain while his fellow soldiers fought off an attack.
When he came back to America, missing his left leg above the knee, it was hard to peel himself up off the couch. He sat around and felt unmotivated, but then something changed.
“I decided I wanted to walk better, and I wanted to start running again,” he said. “You have to set goals.”
He progressed, and eventually found himself in a similar veterans program learning how to surf. Being active, regardless of his physical abilities or disabilities, has changed him back into the person he once was.
“You learn there’s life after injury,” Doyle said. “You’re not stuck, for lack of a better term, being crippled for the rest of your life.”
Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org
– Founded by Cheryl Jensen in 2004
– The nonprofit program provides United States military service men and women who have been severely injured while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan an opportunity to regain and discover confidence through outdoor activities
– To learn more or to donate, visit http://www.vailveteransprogram.com, or call (970) 476-4906