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Vail Veterans Program dines at Vail Firehouse

Traditional farewell dinner is filled with hope

It was the dinner invitation I’ve been waiting to get for a long time. I’ve always heard about the final night of the Vail Veterans Program and the farewell dinner hosted at the Vail Firehouse. The stories of camaraderie, the changes from day one until the last night of the program and the hope that was restored were the stories that warmed my heart when I heard them secondhand. Now, I could hear them in person.

Cheryl Jensen, the founder of the Vail Veterans Program, asked me if I would like to attend their farewell dinner on March 5. No matter what I had on my schedule, I was clearing it to be a part of this. This wasn’t a fancy gala or a high–dollar fundraiser, it was simply a place to witness change, change that has happened all week and is celebrated here.

Jensen started the Vail Veterans Program in 2004. Their mission is to offer military injured and their families free world-class therapeutic programs designed to build confidence, create life-long relationships and tap into the freedom the mountains bring out in all of us.

The winter sports session in Vail gets vets on the snow with instructors from Vail’s Adaptive Ski and Snowboard School for four days of instruction. The evenings are filled with events like going tubing at Adventure Ridge, bowling and dinners around town. It’s become a tradition for Vail Fire, businesses and volunteers to come together to create a special night at the firehouse on the last night of the program.

“Vail Fire has told me that this is their favorite thing they do throughout the entire year,” Jensen said. “They work for days making the lasagna and putting the salads together and moving the fire trucks out and bringing the tables in. They roll out the red carpet for our group. We are so grateful to them and all the volunteers.” 

During the four days of the program, stories are formed. Stories about how an army captain with PTDS and chronic pain was able to move from the bunny slopes to Blue Sky Basin. There’s the story of the ambassador, who credits the Vail Veterans Program with helping him realize all that was still possible for him to live his best life. There’s the story of a donor who became a board member and now volunteers his time out on the hill. There’s the story of the vet who said this program saved his life.

Army Captain Suzanne Brown was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland when she heard about the Vail Veterans Program. “I really didn’t think I was capable or that it was something that I could do. I have a lot of chronic pain issues and PTSD and PTSD was really the biggest thing that was holding me back,” Brown said. “By the end of the four days, we were in Blue Sky Basin and we were on blue runs all over the mountain. She’s doing tremendously well,” said Shane Connary, a ski instructor with the Vail Adaptive Ski and Snowboard Program.

“It’s just been incredible. I am definitely a different person now. I feel like I can do things that I never thought I could do,” Brown said. “When I leave here, I’ve got to figure out what’s next now!”

Col. Gregory Gadson saw the change and used it to take his life story in a different direction after being catastrophically wounded by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad in 2007. Those injuries caused Gadson to lose both his legs above the knee and a lot of function in his right arm.

“Just three months after being wounded, I came to Vail with my family. My world was turned upside down and the Vail Veterans Program just opened my mind and my heart to the possible,” Gadson said. Gadson is now a part of the program officially as an ambassador. He also skied over 20,000 vertical feet earlier that day in his sit-ski and has the footage on three GoPro cameras attached all over his body to prove it.

Gadson remembers his first farewell dinner at the Vail Firehouse and how far the program has come. “In talking with individuals that are here for the first time, it really reinforces the purpose of this, and that there is so much more we can do, so many more people we can touch.”

Michael Galvin is involved in the Vail Veterans Program as a donor and a board member. “But, most importantly, I am a volunteer,” Galvin said. Galvin shared a story of how a veteran who was in one of the winter sports programs came up to him and Jensen and handed over a $100 bill. The veteran told them about how a really nice tourist came up to him in Vail Village and thanked him for his service and gave him a $100 bill.

“He told us that this program had transformed his life and that he wanted to give this $100 back to the Vail Veterans Program. That’s why I keep volunteering, that’s why I keep serving and why I keep donating,” Galvin said.

Galvin’s son was also inspired to become an adaptive ski instructor so he could work with the veterans in this program. This year, Galvin was assigned to work with one of the vets and his son was the adaptive instructor. “Talk about a family, the Vail Veterans Program is a family, and for us, it has a special meaning for my son and I and our family.”

At the end of the night, I thanked Jensen for the invitation and as we were saying goodbye, a veteran came up to her, gave her a hug and said a few words. He was asking her if there was a comment card he could fill out about his adaptive instructor. He told Jensen that he wanted to let the instructor know that he “saved his life.”

She told me this comment when he left and we both teared up, knowing that these four days are paramount in changing the life stories of these vets. 

To learn more about the Vail Veterans Program, visit http://www.vailvateransprogram.org.


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