Veterans program builds confidence, gives respite
Vail, CO Colorado
BURNS ” Ryan Dion lost his foot from a bomb blast that hurled him about 70 feet and into razor-sharp barbed wire. Less than four months later, he was fly-fishing on the upper Colorado River.
Dion and 14 other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whose limbs were amputated from the wars came from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to a private ranch near Burns for a weekend of fly-fishing, rafting and horseback riding.
Six of the amputees had lost their legs this year, more than any other year in the four years of the program, said Cheryl Jensen, founder of the program.
“In some ways I guess it’s probably showing how violent the war has become,” said Jensen, who started the program to help severely wounded veterans find activities they enjoy that would help them in their rehabilitation.
The program pays for the veterans’ travel expenses, food and lodging every summer and winter, Jensen said.
Last winter, one man developed a passion for skiing, and now he wants to work as a ski instructor for amputees, Jensen said.
“You don’t really know the effect it has on people right away,” said Cheryl Jensen, founder of the program. “You end up seeing it two years down the road.”
One veteran, who had lost both legs, did not think he would be able to ride a horse. He said he would watch his wife ride instead.
But ranchers helped him mount the horse, and the veteran rode side-saddle.
“He was the very first person to ride today, and his wife rode another horse beside him,” said Pat McConathy, owner of the ranch. “It’s hard to get any better than that.”
McConathy, owner of the ranch, has hosted the Vail Veterans Program for two years. A “liberal democrat,” McConathy hates the war but loves the soldiers, he said.
He will continue to host the program for the men and women for “as long as it takes,” he said.
“The war will end at some point, but these men ” their injuries ” they won’t,” McConathy said.
The stay at the ranch helped the veterans get a break from the hospital, which can be a depressing place.
“Everywhere you go in a hospital, there’s someone missing half their head, they have no eyes, missing legs, arms, their wives are leaving them,” Dion said.
In April, Jonathan Harris lost his leg above the knee after the truck he was riding in ran over an improvised explosive device in Iraq. His prosthetic leg bent at the knee, Harris was sitting in a chair sipping a drink Friday night.
“It’s really just getting out instead of just sitting in your hotel moping ” some people do that,” said Harris, a 23-year-old Army veteran of the Iraq War from Pennsylvania.
The outdoors helped calm his nerves, he said.
“I’m stuck in D.C., and I hate it because it’s a concrete forest,” Harris said.
Pete Rooney, a 24-year-old Army veteran from Massachusetts, enjoyed fly-fishing from inside the raft on the Colorado River, he said.
“It’s therapy for your mind,” Rooney said. “Maybe not for your body so much as being in a gym working out and getting your legs stronger, but just for your head.”
Late one evening in April, Dion went outside to get a package at an Army base in Falluja, Iraq. A bomb exploded at the entrance, killing one Marine and blowing an arm and a leg off another one.
Dion was conscious throughout the blast. He saw a flash, smelled gunpowder and then felt like he was quickly running backward throughout the explosion. His gun blown in half, Dion grabbed a bayonet and cut his clothes to free himself from the barbed wire to avoid gunfire.
Now Dion, a 22-year-old Marine from Connecticut, has post-traumatic stress disorder. He stays up three days in a row and then sleeps for a whole day, he said. He also suffers from short-term memory loss, he said.
And people stare at him “like I got some type of disease,” he said.
“It’s kind of embarrassing and a big confidence killer at first, but you just kind of learn to live with it and move on,” said Dion, leaning on a crutch to take pressure off his prosthetic leg.
In April, Rooney was riding shotgun in a Humvee in Iraq when an improvised explosive device blew off both his legs above the knee, he said.
Every day has been a struggle since then, he said. He relies on his wife, Susanne Rooney, to help him with tasks that he used to take for granted, he said.
Taking care of Pete is “pretty much” Susanne Rooney’s job, she said.
“I do it because I love him and I want to help him,” she said.
The veterans interviewed for this story did not regret serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, they said.
“I got to meet some amazing people and formed some real close bonds with people that I don’t think I ever would have made outside the military,” Rooney said.
After they get better, Dion and Harris want to go to college, they said.
For now they will continue to go back to their daily rehabilitation, which involves learning how to walk again and spending time with other veterans, like they did on the ranch.
Rooney expects to walk by this winter when he and his wife go to visit family in Germany at Christmas. His fellow soldiers should be finished with their tours by then, he said.
“I’m going to hopefully greet them and be able to walk,” said Rooney as he sat in his wheelchair. “It would be pretty special if I was able to, so that’s what I’m shooting for.”
With assistance, Rooney started learning how to walk again a couple weeks ago.
Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.