Vail Veterans Program celebrates 15 years of helping heroes
Local program has gone from seven participants to several thousand
VAIL — An Army Special Forces unit is skiing down Vail Mountain when its members cross paths with a Vail Veterans Program crew. Both groups stop, happily acknowledge each other and their gear. Handshakes and introductions all around, most punctuated with:
“Thank you for your service.”
“Thank you for yours.”
In that instant is the essence of the Vail Veterans Program’s soul — service to each other.
Vail Veterans Program participants often greet each other with, “How are your doing?”
“Living,” comes the enthusiastic reply.
15 years in the firehouse
The Vail Veterans Program celebrated 15 years with its traditional session-ending party in the Vail firehouse on Thursday.
Fifteen years ago, seven military veterans injured in the Middle East gathered in Vail to learn to ski. Cheryl Jensen, adaptive ski instructor at the time, and several friends put it together in about two months not long after Operation Iraqi Freedom sent the number of military injuries soaring. Three months before that, she was in Washington D.C. and met someone who had spent the day at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“What’s Walter Reed?” Jensen asked.
She soon learned. It changed her life and eventually the lives of thousands of others. Jensen and her friends raised enough money to bring seven participants to Vail for a ski vacation.
That “Magnificent Seven” each sought her out at that first Vail firehouse party in 2004. It was supposed to be a one-time deal. But at that 2004 party, each of the Magnificent Seven admonished her to keep doing it, to keep bringing injured servicemen and women to Vail.
Jensen did. The Vail Veterans Program has hosted more than 3,000 injured veterans and their families for all sorts of programs.
“We grew to meet your changes,” Jensen said during Thursday’s party.
More than a one-time event
Then-Capt. Dave Rozelle jumped onto the board of directors. He had lost his leg in Iraq and helped put the 2004 program together. He couldn’t be in Vail for the 15th anniversary party as he’s back in Kabul, Afghanistan, on active duty.
“VVP began as a one-time event, but the strength of our program over the last 15 years is based on forming relationships between our service members and their families. Our participants are empowered by each program they attend as they discover their own path to success,” Rozelle said via satellite. He’s now a lieutenant colonel and Vail Veterans Program board member.
Heath Calhoun was one of 2004’s Magnificent Seven. He learned to snowboard that week by “holding hands with my instructor for two straight days.” He’s now one of the world’s leading adaptive athletes.
Ryan Kelley was another. He had been injured a few months before and lost his right leg. At 24 years old, he thought his dreams of flying were as dead as the leg he used to have.
The Vail Veterans Program, he told Thursday’s 15th anniversary crew, is a lesson in “the magic of perspective.”
“I began to believe that if I wanted to do something, I could do it,” Kelley said.
Vail Adaptive Snowsports Instructor Karen Frei taught Kelley that week in 2004. She recalled that Kelley’s mind and heart were in a dark place.
“He always wanted to fly, and now he is,” Frei said.
Kelley attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, where he earned an engineering degree and learned to fly helicopters. These days he earns his living as a pilot for search and rescue and Flight for Life.
“I look at this group and I see that in every one of you,” Kelley told Thursday’s group gathered at the Vail firehouse.
Of coins and Kirk
This week’s participants each received a commemorative coin emblazoned with what the Vail Veterans Program has done for a decade and a half: “Supporting Injured U.S. Service Members and Their Families Since 2004.” On the other side it says: “Renewing Hope, Building Confidence, Improving Lives, Strengthening Families.”
Along with Frei, Vail adaptive ski instructors Dave Callahan and Matt Cercerce have been teaching with the Vail Veterans Program for all 15 years.
They ask their students how it feels to be out there.
“It feels like freedom,” their students reply.
During Thursday’s celebration, the participants called their instructors to the front and presented them with their own coin.
Tom Kirk was once one of those instructors. Jensen presented him the first coin; the first one needed to be special, her husband, Bill, said. It was. Kirk’s eyes filled with tears as he read his coin aloud.
In a world where social media spins celebrities out of nothing, Kirk is a genuine American hero, although he dismisses that notion with a wave of his hands.
Kirk smiles and says he hasn’t had a bad day since March 1973 when he was released after five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous North Vietnamese prison camp where he was imprisoned with the late John McCain.
“My friends at ski school sometimes didn’t understand, but I spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war,” he said. “Now I live in Vail. How can you have a bad day here?”
Kirk shrugs off hero talk.
“More than anything else, I’m a survivor,” he continued. “I was just a guy in two wars. I decided I was going to make it out alive, and I did.”
You changed our lives forever
Heroes are ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats. Like Kirk and those who create and operate things like the Vail Veterans Program.
“You changed our lives, changed ’em forever,” a Navy veteran said Thursday.
Joe Burke was one of those injured most recently — Nov. 4, 2018, in Afghanistan. That’s his Alive Day, the day he was hit but didn’t die. All 3,000 Vail Veterans Program participants have one. So do countless others. This week’s winter program was Burke’s first event outside Walter Reed, the first time he has seriously considered what’s ahead of him instead of what he has lost, he said.
“The sky’s the limit. I know that now,” Burke said.
Participants call the Vail Veterans Program “the gold standard.” They get to go outside and play with their children, many for the first time since they were injured. They get to smile in the sun and snow. They make lifetime friends in Vail, reinforcing that they’re not going through this alone. “Sometimes a friend is all the therapy you need,” one said Thursday.
“Fifteen years, that’s time to be the gardener to a lot of souls,” said another to Jensen, executive director Lindsay Humphreys, Jackie Lizar and other staff members staff and the countless Vail Veterans Program volunteers.
Thursday’s Vail firehouse party opened with a flag ceremony by the local VFW and the national anthem was sang by Vail Mountain School students. It ended with standing ovations for the staff and volunteers, for restored hope, homes, lives and families, and for helping them find their smiles and laughter … they were right outside all the time, in the snow and sunshine.
Jensen deflects the praise, calling it “the greatest honor of my life.”
Like any human endeavor the Vail Veterans Program wins most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t. Casey Owens could not defeat his demons. But it’s the Owens that drive veterans in the program to ski a little faster, try a little harder, laugh a little louder and love a little deeper.
So, after 15 years what’s next for the Vail Veterans Program?
“Sixteen years,” everyone replies.