Vets return to Vail slopes |

Vets return to Vail slopes

CVR Vail Vets KA 1-26-12

VAIL, Colorado – Some wear uniforms, some wear prosthetics but this week they all wear smiles.

The Vail Veterans Program is hosting its latest group of military veterans, all wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This week, Vail wins the award for most heroes per square foot.

Take breakfast at the Larkspur. Heroes are packed around every table, asking and answering the question, “How fast does it go?”

“We’re all daredevils,” said a smiling Marcus Hayward.

Marcus loves to snowboard, and we’ll just say he’s fairly certain about his motorcycle’s top speed – and not from lab tests.

They also talk about their Alive Day, the day they got hit and didn’t die. It reminds you to live while you’re alive.

Ask one of them about their Alive Day and they’ll likely tell you.

Marcus has been in the Army eight years with the military police and as a dog handler, which is much more interesting than it sounds.

His dogs sniff out explosives, and many of the explosives they’re supposed to sniff are in Afghanistan. That would explain why he was on his third tour in the country, and why he was riding an ATV in southern Afghanistan.

It would also explain the roadside bomb he hit – and that hit him.

“I woke up in Germany two days later,” Marcus said.

His Alive Day came during his sixth year in the Army.

“I figured it was coming eventually,” he said.

He came alive yet again on June 11, 2011, when he and Elizabeth were married.

The Vail Veterans Program is one of the only ones that include families, and that’s how the room comes to be filled with smiling laughing children, and how Hayward comes to be accompanied by his adorable wife, Elizabeth.

Dan Riley’s parents now live in the valley. When he enlisted in the Marines in 2008, he was still a Canadian citizen, born in British Columbia. On July 4, 2009, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen before the vice president in Saddam Hussein’s old palace in Baghdad, Iraq.

It didn’t take him long to find his way into combat, or for an IED to find him. His Alive Day is Dec. 16, 2010.

The stories and the smiles just keep coming.

Life in the fall line

It turns out that the fundamentals of skiing and snowboarding are a lot like life – link your turns, keep moving forward.

Snow sports help wounded veterans learn what they can do, instead of thinking about what they cannot, said Cheryl Jensen, who started the Vail Veterans Program with Major David Rozelle.

“It builds confidence. The veterans leave Vail feeling like they can do anything even after losing limbs,” Rozelle said. “We believe it is important families have time away from every day life to be with one another. We see families leave our program with renewed spirit and inspiration that anything is possible.”

Tiffany Smith is a recreational therapist with Walter Reed Army Hospital in Maryland. She handles adaptive sports for amputees and trauma patients.

When nonprofits call with an event to fill, they call her and she dispatches heroes by the carload.

“They’re learning to adapt. That’s one of the reasons they’re here,” said Chris Benson, an instructor with Vail’s adaptive ski program. “They’re gung ho.”

Ask Jensen about her favorite group and she breaks into a beatific smile.

“Every group is the best group,” she said.

The Vail Veterans Program started with one group for one week. Now it’s two one-week winter sessions and a summer session.

The trips to Vail don’t cost the veterans or their families a dime, but they’re not free. Jensen is always looking for donations and volunteers.

Jensen is one of those irresistible forces of nature. She put the program together nine years ago. Since then they’ve brought hundreds of Wounded Warriors and their families to Vail.

“We’ll continue as long as there’s a need,” Jensen said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

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