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Vail Veterans Program hosts four dozen injured military veterans and their families

Vail’s place is in their hearts

The Vail Veterans Program brought four dozen people to town for their January family program. The program provides Vail vacations to military veterans and their families.
Vail Veterans Program
To help The Vail Veterans Program is supported by donors, corporate sponsors and volunteers. That allows all programs to be free for military veterans injured in the Middle East and their families. For more information about the Vail Veterans Program, including how to donate and/or volunteer, visit vailveteransprogram.org or call 970-476-4906.

Yes, Vail is a place on the map, but for the four dozen people in town this week for the Vail Veterans Program winter family session, Vail is a place in their hearts.

Among them, the Damon Johnson clan is in town from San Antonio. The Schumacher crew is in from San Diego.

One of Johnson’s medical team suggested the trip to relieve his stress and frustration. It’ll help him find his happy place, his therapist said.

“Before this, I hadn’t been in my happy place since I was a child,” Johnson said.

“Try it,” his therapist said.

The Johnsons are glad they did. Vail, it turns out, is Johnson’s happy place. When the family leaves, he said he’ll take his happy place with him.

Johnson is among some of the few people in this world who know what he’s going through. It’s humbling and inspiring, he said, looking around the Larkspur restaurant at injured military veterans and their families. Some are amputees in wheelchairs, some lost their sight, and all are happy to be here.

“If they can do it, I can do it,” he said.

The activities are great, but it’s more about the people who run the Vail Veterans Program, and those participating.

Johnson was serving in the Army in Iraq when his life began careening downhill. He had trouble walking, his balance was off and his speech was slurred. Doctors took a look at him and thought it was either an inoperable brain tumor or Multiple Sclerosis. A spinal fluid sample came back negative for MS, so it had to be the brain tumor. Experts gave him about a year to live.

He woke up one morning, rolled out of bed and collapsed to the floor. More tests showed it was MS.

He’s in Vail with his loving family and living life.

That thorn bush has roses!

Some people look at a rose bush and complain it has thorns. Jon Schumacher’s perspective is, “Hey! This thorn bush has roses!”

“When I was in the hospital was finally had time to get to know each other,” Jon said.

About that: The Marines originally planted Jon in Southern California, where he met Courtney. That was January. If it wasn’t love at first sight, it came on pretty fast. They were married in March. He shipped out to Afghanistan six weeks later.

He came home when his first tour was up but was barely with his new bride long enough to do laundry when the Marines sent him back.

They’re in San Diego because Jon was sent to Balboa Hospital after he was hit in 2011. He was on patrol with his Marine unit in Afghanistan, assisting another unit when he stepped on an IED. They immediately came under withering fire.

“Luckily no one was injured but me,” Jon said, who lost both legs above the knee in the explosion.

When Jon was having his Alive Day — the day he was injured but did not die — Courtney was eight and a half months pregnant with Easton, their second son. The Pentagon called with the news as she and Ethan, their first son and 4 years old at the time, were putting together a care package to send to Jon in Afghanistan.

Linking turns and lives

The Schumacher crew was in town in 2015 for one of the Vail Veterans Program’s summer sessions. Jon grew up snowboarding Mount Hood in Oregon, so he knew how much fun this trip with the Vail Veterans Program would be.

Ethan and Easton are learning to snowboard, linking turns and occasionally laughing out loud. The secret to snowboarding might also be the secret to life.

“Look in the direction you want to go, and you go there,” Ethan said.

Jon is riding a bi-ski, grinning from ear to ear and planning winter trips to Oregon.

“This has reignited my passion for the sport,” he said.

Courtney is relaxing, smiling the easy smile of someone at leisure, for once.

“As a wife and mother, I love to see them doing something together, something they can bond over,” she said.


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