Vail Veterans Program reunites soldiers who crossed paths in Iraq in 2004
VAIL — Families stick together, it’s what families do.
“We’re family. We are not alone,” Steve Dabroski told a group of wounded combat veterans in town for the Vail Veterans Program’s summer golf session.
Dabroski and Jeremy Knutson hadn’t seen each other since a rocket-propelled grenade ambush hit Dabroski’s Marine unit in Iraq.
Knutson was a Navy corpsman whose recruiter promised he’d see the world. He saw Iraq and Afghanistan, and not the nice parts.
Knutson saves Dabroski
The Marines don’t have their own corpsman. They use the Navy’s. That explains why Knutson was in Iraq loading blown-up Marines onto rescue helicopters in 2004, including one with a spinal fracture.
“The guy with the spinal fracture was me,” Dabroski recalled in Vail. “The man who put me in the medevac helo was him [Knutson].”
Dabroski and his commanding officer were hauled to a medevac site where a rescue helicopter would fly them to safety and help.
With bullets and bombs exploding around him, Knutson patched up Dabroski and others as best he could, loaded Dabroski onto a medevac helicopter and sent him flying toward civilization.
Knutson’s brain was compartmentalizing, focusing on his job. Dabroski’s brain was taking snapshots, as brains in those situations sometimes do. Among the mental photos was one of Knutson’s nametag.
Flash forward more than a decade to the Vail Veterans Program’s opening night dinner for this summer’s golf program.
The vets were working their way around the tables, introducing themselves and telling bits of their stories. Knutson was speaking and Dabroski’s eyes began to well up. He stood and his voice choked. From some deep file, his brain called up Knutson’s nametag.
“This week was the first time we had seen each other since then,” Knutson said of Dabroski. “It brought back some memories. I would never have known him if he hadn’t said something.”
Snell saves Knutson
Steve Snell was next to Knutson at that same table Monday night with the Vail Veterans Program and again Thursday. It was April 9, 2006, in Iraq when Knutson was hit. Snell treated Knutson and loaded him onto a medevac helicopter. Snell and Knutson have been friends since then. They golf together. Snell was a groomsman in Knutson’s wedding. They sometimes battle their demons together.
There were plenty of demons to go around in this week’s group. They have suicide attempts among the 13 participants.
Knutson pulled a trigger and lived. A dead round in his pistol misfired and saved him. He began the long climb out of that dark hole. Among other things, he called the Vail Veterans Program and they put him in this week’s golf group.
“I won the moment I got off the plane,” Knutson said.
Snell was hit twice in Iraq. He suffered survivor’s guilt, anxiety, depression … “all the normal stuff,” he said.
When he came home he was part of a veterans group who received a set of new golf clubs, and he began to practice.
“I have trouble remembering things. I’ll never forget this,” Snell said during Thursday’s closing dinner.
They all save each other
“Golf is like the Marines. You hate it when you’re in it, but as soon as you’re out you want back in,” Snell told the group.
After the Marines, Dabroski landed in Loveland. He launched a successful business, got divorced and lost everything, except the person he loves most. “I got full custody of my daughter,” he said.
Thursday night they went back around the room telling their stories. Most choked up a little. Almost all turned to the Vail Veterans Program staff, saying something like, “You’re changing lives.”
They understand each other, the way only those with shared experiences like that can.
“What you guys are talking about, I get it,” Rusty Carney said. “My life was in shambles, too.”
Carney was shot three times in six tours in combat. He plays golf all the time and takes his kids with him.
“On bad days they play at my speed. On good days they chase me,” he said.
Golf and life are alike that way.
“I wanted to get better. Some days you’re gonna suck. Some days you’ll prosper,” Carney said.
Brent South was an Army Ranger for the first several years of his 21-year military career, then swapped his rucksack for flight gear and became a helicopter pilot. It’s challenging transitioning from the military to civilian life. “Civilians don’t know, and most don’t want to know,” he said.
Golf was the first time he felt safe and secure.
John Arp was hit multiple times, suffered four concussions and other injuries. He was sick from 2001 to 2011 with an intestinal parasite that was initially misdiagnosed. When he had to have his large intestines removed he had to leave the military.
“I feel at home in two places, anywhere there are veterans and on any golf course,” he said.
Golf and skiing are among the tools the Vail Veterans Program have used for 15 years to help point wounded veterans away from their darkness and toward the light. The veterans start in the sunlight — golfing or skiing. From there they move to personal and professional programs.
“It’s always about you, figuring out ways to provide more programs for you and your families,” Vail Veterans Program founder Cheryl Jensen said.
About Vail Veterans Program
Since 2004, Vail Veterans Program has provided injured military personalities and their families with innovative and transformational programs that help them successfully face the physical and emotional challenges of transitioning into life after a severe military service injury. These world-class therapeutic programs are provided free of charge to injured Veterans and their families and are designed to tap into the freedom the mountains bring out in all of us. For more information visit, http://www.vailveteransprogram.org.
Participants attached protest signs to ski poles and hockey sticks in Vail Saturday at the 2020 Women’s March.