Vail Veterans Program offers hope, family bonding in the mountains
Summer program helps build confidence and strengthen connections through outdoor sports and recreation
For nearly 13 and a half years, Travis Wyatt served in the U.S. Navy. He was an operations specialist 1st class petty officer E-6 on his Alive Day — the date when a member of the military almost loses their life.
“My Alive Day is July 12, 2020, that’s the day the Bonhomme Richard suffered a major ship fire, on Pier 2 Naval Base, San Diego, and I was on the U.S.S. Fitzgerald directly across from the lower vehicle storage. There were three major explosions that day and the third one exited directly at my quarter deck and the pressure wave threw me back into the bulkhead causing a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and neurological damage down my left side,” Travis said.
Travis and his wife and two children were in Vail this week for the Vail Veterans Program, a nonprofit started in 2004 to help military injured and their families rebuild confidence through extraordinary mountain experiences. What started out as a winter program offering adaptive skiing and snowboarding has grown to include summer activities like golfing, fly-fishing, horseback riding, zip lining and whitewater rafting.
“I used to be part of the outdoor recreational therapy program at Naval Medical Center in San Diego and Kim Elliott, a recreation therapist there, told me about the Vail Veterans Program,” Travis said.
Helping heroes heal
Elliott is part of a network of therapists the Vail Veterans Program works with to bring vets to Vail. The participants of the program are invited to Vail at no cost to them or their families 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.
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Earlier this week, the Vail Veterans Program welcomed 21 wounded veterans, 21 spouses/caregivers, 29 children and three partner military hospital staff in attendance for a total of 74 participants. Travis was with his wife, Teea, son Blake, 11, and daughter Haydn, 9, and service dog, Leno. After only a few days into the trip, the group had already been whitewater rafting, and zip lining and were about to go up the Eagle Bahn Gondola to do some summer tubing.
“I loved zip lining the best, especially when the guides teach you tricks like “hands-free” and the “lazy boy” where you put your feet out in front of you and lean back and put your hands behind your head like you’re in a La-Z-Boy chair,” Blake said.
“I got to ride with my dad on the zip line tandem on the last line, so that was really fun to do that together. It makes all of us happy to see him doing well,” Haydn said.
And Travis was doing well on the zip line course, considering he usually uses a wheelchair to get around due to his balance not being what it once was.
“The walking around the zip line course was brutal for me because my mobility issues, my vertigo and vestibular systems are compromised,” Travis said. “I’ve been through a lot of therapy for those, but it is what it is at this point, so I can walk, but the wheelchair is much easier for me in order to save energy to get around. I had my cane and the guides were awesome. They had a guide with me the entire time and they all were helping me get up and walk and I was able to get through it.”
‘They trusted themselves to do the hard thing’
Travis said his favorite part was seeing his kids overcome fears and challenges on the zip line course. There is an extra feature at Zip Adventures in Wolcott called The Canyon Plunge where instead of zip lining across the canyon, you jump off a cliff and free fall — for a little bit — you are harnessed in, but it can be intimidating at any age.
“I just went (makes the motion of taking a deep breath) and then I plunged off!” Blake said, explaining how he used his breath to just go for it. His sister wasn’t so sure …
“I wasn’t going to do it, but when I saw my brother and my friend do it, then I decided I could, but you don’t want to look down because if you look down then you’ll get scared. I’d definitely do it again,” Haydn said.
“Getting to see my kids grow and conquer their fears is amazing. It’s watching them develop and you see them literally taking a chance on something that they may find scary and then they conquered it, they did it. They trusted themselves to do the hard thing,” Travis said.
Teea has enjoyed the time together, too.
“We are excited about this program in Vail because it is a family program. Most of the programs that we participate in are directed toward the veteran or active-duty member so it’s been really wonderful to be here as a family,” Teea said.
“While we were here this week, Travis and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary, so it was a perfect place to do it as a family and I really love watching Travis and the kids being able to do these experiences together,” Teea said. “Watching Travis persevere on his own and make it through these programs, and our kids being able to see it, really is wonderful.”
Sights set on the Paralympics
Travis enjoys the outdoors and trying new sports and credits adaptive sports for saving his life.
“I came across occupational therapy through the TBI clinic I was going to, and they recommended that I go. I was just lost in space and went ahead and tried something new and it was actually beneficial to get out and it is what led me to adaptive sports,” Travis said.
Travis took to adaptive sports so much so that he has participated in the Department of Defense Warrior Games in Orlando in 2022 and in June he competed in the Warrior Games Challenge in Sand Diego. The Games highlight the exceptional physical skills and mental toughness of wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran service members from all U.S. military branches. He will compete in the Invictus Games in Duesseldorf, Germany, in late September. The Invictus Games are an international sporting competition similar to the Paralympics but for wounded, injured or ill military personnel and war veterans. Someday, Travis plans to be in the Paralympics.
“He’s a bit reserved about how well he did in Orlando in 2022 but he came home from his first Warrior Games with two golds and two silvers and has continued adding sports like rugby and field as his two new sports for Warrior Games Challenge this year,” Teea said.
“My Team Navy wants me to try to learn a winter sport because the Invictus Games are going to be in Canada in 2025. I used to snowboard so, I know snow is fun,” Travis said. He has his eyes set on a Vail Vail Veterans Program in the winter.
“It’s so exciting for us to hear Travis talk about these experiences because I think the important thing for the Vail Veterans Program is trying to create these activities and opportunities for individuals to learn a new sport, so it makes us so proud to hear these next steps and all of the success that these vets are able to have to continue to inspire others as well,” said Jen Brown, executive director of the Vail Veterans Program.
The Vail Veterans Program hosts several programs throughout the year including summer and winter therapeutic programs for vets, family programs, caregiver programs and more. To learn about this locally-based nonprofit, go to VailVeteransProgram.org.
“For veterans, especially those who are injured because we have to change how our lives work and how we function, getting to experience something that can give you confidence, to know you have that, that is a huge barrier that you break,” Travis said. “It’s not a little leap, it’s a concrete wall that you’re breaking through and allows you to know ‘I’m not just stuck in this position, I can do other things’ and it’s instrumental for our mental health and a lot of times physical health. The benefits these programs give us are immeasurable, it’s amazing.”