Vail Veterans Program takes vets to Africa |

Vail Veterans Program takes vets to Africa

Nonprofit trades the mountains for an African safari to heal wounded veterans

Members of the Vail Veterans Program pose with the staff at Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
Courtesy photo

Since 2004, the Vail Veterans Program has transformed the lives of military injured and their families through innovative programs. Leaders of the local nonprofit believe the mountains can bring hope, build confidence and create life-long relationships with those wounded vets who are going through something similar.

The Rocky Mountains have played a prominent role in bringing about changes in how these wounded vets feel after they’ve been here for a Vail Veterans Program week. The hook is the sport: skiing, snowboarding, fly-fishing, golfing, zip-lining and other outdoor activities. But the catch is the lifelong changes the mountains inspire.

This fall, the Vail Veterans Program took the backdrop to a different level, and a different continent, by bringing a few vets to Africa for a safari.

Through the help of generous donors, Vail Veterans Program organized a safari trip to Africa for wounded military veterans.
Vail Veterans Program/Courtesy photo

Cheryl Jensen, the founder of the Vail Veterans Program, said that she and program alumni and ambassador of Vail Veterans Program, Army Col. Greg Gadson (Ret.), had talked in 2019 about what an incredible experience a photographic safari would be in East Africa for wounded service members. COVID-19 quickly put that idea on the backburner for a few years.

“During the summer of 2022, Greg and I began to discuss the opportunity again. I contacted Mark Ross, an American safari guide who has been guiding in Africa for over 30 years. Mark agreed to organize the trip with his friend and fellow safari guide, Nigel Archer,” Jensen said. “The two of them organized every detail of the trip to Kenya, which was not easy considering we had three veterans in wheelchairs. Both Nigel and Mark donated their guide services to help us keep our costs low.”

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Similar to how the winter and summer programs are free, the Vail Veterans Program did not want money to be a barrier for the vets. Through generous donors, Jensen was able to take a few of the Vail Veterans Program alumni on the trip at no cost.

Jennifer Caudillo said the safari made her realize that she wants to go into the wildlife biology field.
Vail Veterans Program/Courtesy photo

Vail local James Deighan of Highline and Highline Helps, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has always loved the incredibly strong foundation behind the Vail Veteran’s Program and its mission to take care of veterans in such a meaningful way. Deighan’s family has been to Africa and spent time with kids in rural schools, and families in small local villages and enjoyed the amazing animals in the area. 

“There is nothing in the world like it, and for our donors to be able to help provide this opportunity to wounded vets is something that was so moving for us,” Deighan said. “They have sacrificed literally everything in their lives for our country, and to be able to give them an experience like this not only makes us as individuals feel good selfishly but also provides them some semblance of joy and happiness few experiences can offer.”

Once funding was secured, Jensen arranged for a small group of Vail Veterans Program alumni to join. Gadson was on the list, of course, due to their conversation in 2019 and Gadson’s love for photography. Andrew Kinard is a former U.S. Marine and was picked for his passion for adventure travel. Jensen knew that he had dreamed of experiencing a safari.

“Jennifer Caudillo was chosen because she had recently gotten an infection in her amputated leg and had to return to a wheelchair. Her therapist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center suggested that she would be a great candidate as she was struggling with a setback in her recovery,” Jensen said.

“I could not believe it was real and that I was picked to go on the trip,” said Caudillo, who is a retired U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant. “Once it sunk in, I was so unbelievably excited and could not wait to go to Africa. I looked up the locations we were going and worked on learning all I could about them. I even picked up a Swahili phrase book to try to learn the language.”

Guides Ross and Archer planned a trip of a lifetime for this group of American heroes as they wanted them to experience Kenya in a very special way. They organized mobile camps for the Vail Veterans Program group in Samburu National Reserve and Maasai Mara. They slept in beautiful canvas tents with lanterns lighting up the camp to create a special setting. There was also a staff of 20 people at each camp that took great care of the group. 

Vail Veterans Program alumni Andrew Kinard, left, and Greg Gadson met 15 years ago at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center while recovering from wounds from Iraq and reconnected on the safari. “He showed me how to take better pictures and I showed him how to sit on the roof of the safari vehicle for a better view of the wildlife,” Kinard said.
Vail Veterans Program/Courtesy photo

“Traveling to Kenya on safari was a wonderful way to push the limits of what I thought was possible,” Kinard said. “There were many parts of the trip that brought me out of my comfort zone: the lack of accommodations for people using wheelchairs; the challenge of getting around a campsite; the nagging worry that something on my wheelchair could break. The sheer beauty of Kenya’s landscape, people and wildlife made all of these concerns melt away.”

“My early thoughts of such an event go back to the Mutual of Omaha show, I believe it was called ‘Wild Kingdom.’ I was always fascinated by the animals and wildlife and found it very educational and intriguing,” Gadson said. “But being in the bush immersed in an environment with very little light and noise pollution and being at peace with the wildlife was truly amazing. I can measure my response to the environment by how well I’ve slept since my return. I’ve had the best six days of sleep consecutively than I’ve had in years and I can only attribute it to this trip.”

“Seeing the animals and learning from our guide made me realize that this is what I wanted to do with my life,” Caudillo said. “I work in a business setting, and this is completely opposite from what I do. Being around the animals and learning about them and their environment is what I want to study and go into the wildlife biology field.”

Vail Veterans Program alumni Jennifer Caudillo, left, and Vail Veterans Program founder Cheryl Jensen enjoy the views from the top of the safari truck in Kenya.
Vail Veterans Program/Courtesy photo

The Vail Veterans Program believes that mountains can change people, and now there’s proof that the African bush can change people as well.

“The beautiful part of the trip was to watch Greg, Andrew and Jennifer become very close and supportive of one another because of this shared experience of military service and the safari, they will be lifetime friends,” Jensen said.

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