Vail Veterans Program welcomes winter group to town

Chris"Sando"Sandoski fist pumps in jubilation after Eric Rodriguez links his first turns on a snowboard during the Vail Veterans Program in Vail on Tuesday.
Townsend Bessent | |

VAIL — Lt. Col. Dr. Donald Gajewski laughs and cries at the same time when he talks about his “guys.”

Gajewski is in town with dozens of wounded warriors and their families for a Vail Veterans Program session, and found himself at the rim of Blue Sky Basin asking himself how a rookie skier got there. He fell a lot, but didn’t stay down — something he learned from his guys.

“I’ve been doing this 12 years and it’s still an emotional job for me,” Gajewski said. “I see the perseverance of these guys. They fall 12 times, then fall 12 more and pull themselves up. You’re not human if that doesn’t change you.”

The amputation guy

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Gajewski was commissioned into the Army Medical Corps in 1994 and calls it “the best job in the world,” which, considering what he does, is curious and wonderful and inspiring.

U.S. military forces have 1,652 amputees since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gajewski has performed more than 1,000 those amputations.

He had finished his oncology residency in Miami and was back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when the planes hit in Washington and New York City on 9/11.

As the casualties rolled in, someone looked at him and said, “You were the tumor guy. Now, you’re now the amputation guy.”

“Maybe I was in the right place at the wrong time, or maybe not. This has been the best job in the world,” he said. “After working with these guys I couldn’t see leaving.”

This group leaves Vail on Thursday and Gajewski is back in the operating room Friday for three more cases. He never gets used to it.

“I have the same feelings from the first two all those years ago that I have for these next three,” Gajewski said. “It’s still hard to go into an operating room and there’s a 20-something kid. I still get tears in the eyes. When I don’t feel like that, it’s time to quit.”

It doesn’t paralyze him. Instead, he thrives on it, he said.

“We’re on auto when we’re in there, but it will always be emotional,” Gajewski said. “Some surgeons would just want to get it done. I disagree. I embrace the emotion because it helps me, and it helps them get through it. I can’t get through a staff meeting without getting emotional.”

Patriotic Vail

He works at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. San Antonio bills itself at Military City USA. “They’re as patriotic as they come, and I consider Vail a military town, too. People are so understanding here. I love coming here,” he said.

His guys go on a lot of trips, and occasionally he gets to tag along. He’d been to Aspen for a Wounded Warriors winter sports clinic. For this Vail Veterans Program trip, the recreational therapist couldn’t make it and asked Gajewski if he wanted to go.

He thought about it for a shorter expanse of time than a theoretical physics experiment and started packing. He’d been out to Vail once before for a Vail Veterans Program summer session, and said he wanted to see what the place looks like with snow on it.

Good, is how it looks.

Family matters

The Vail Veterans Program is one of the few programs that invites families to join their wounded warriors for a trip.

“Their lives are changed when Dad or Mom comes home injured. They’re the ones who sacrifice everything,” Gajewski said.

Founder Cheryl Jensen is adamant about that, saying it’s an important opportunity for families to spend some time together away from hospitals and rehab.

“It’s so important for the kids to see Dad doing these kinds of things, seeing him come down the hill. He has been hurt for so long. We look up to our dads,” Gajewski said.

The veterans say it’s important for them to realize that even with what they’ve been through, they can still do almost anything — they just do it differently.

“It’s like they’re saying, ‘I got blown up and I’m missing three limbs. What else can hurt me?’” Gajewski said.

The military doesn’t generally fund things such as adapted skiing, or fishing or anything else, which is unfortunate.

“Adaptive programs are so important,” Gajewski said. “Patients are less likely to be depressed. Less likely to be on pain medications.”

Good days, bad days

They’re heroes, but even heroes can have a bad day, because heroes are still human.

“I know they argue with their spouses and are short with their children, and there are thoughts in their heads that shouldn’t be there, but these guys never let us see them have a bad day,” Gajewski said. “They have made me a better person.”

He said he sees it as a lifetime commitment, for him and them.

“They raised their right hand not to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but to fight on our behalf,” Gajewski said. “They’ve said, ‘There’s evil in this world and we’ll take care of it for you.’”

Gajewski has been deployed twice; first in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 with the 31st Combat Support Hospital, and then to Afghanistan in 2009-10 with the 555th Forward Surgical Team. He has been involved with combat casualty care since the beginning of the global War on Terror at all echelons of care.

These days, he’s director at the Center for the Intrepid. Every cent to build it came from donations by 600,000 Americans, he said. The operating expenses are also covered by donations.

“It just continues to amaze me to see the generosity of the American people in person, not only in that building but on trips like this,” Gajewski said. “It makes me so proud.”

He’s been in the military for 21 years next year and then he’s done. The wars are winding down; his last traumatic amputee was November 2013, and his head tells him it’s a good time to step away, he said. But his heart’s not buying it.

He’s joining a friend’s practice, who also was a military surgeon. He understands.

“He tells me, ‘You’re gonna love your job, but you’re gonna miss the guys. There are no patients like them in the world,’” Gajewski said.

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