Wounded veterans smile on the slopes:
The light was flat, the wind was blowing and there wasn’t much new snow to speak of. For most Vail skiers, it wasn’t a day to be on the mountain.
But for a group of 27 wounded veterans at Vail’s Golden Peak, the skiing conditions were of little importance; last Thursday was a day on the mountain and that’s what counted.
After some breakfast at the Larkspur restaurant inside the Golden Peak Lodge, the soldiers met up with their private instructors and headed to the adaptive skiing building next to the high-speed lift. Inside the building, a trio of double-amputee veterans waited to be outfitted on monoskis ” a ski attached to a bucket-style seat. When all their equipment seemed to fit, they got back into their wheelchairs and headed to the slopes.
About three hours later, some of the soldiers took a lunch break at the Golden Peak Lodge.
“When I go out and ski, I kind of forget about everything ” like missing my legs. It’s just going out and having fun, and allows you to get away from stress of everyday stuff,” said Cpl. Ray Hennagir.
Hennagir, a first-time participant in the Vail Veterans Program and a first-time skier, was injured on June 16 in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. He had both of his legs amputated above the knees, and lost four fingers on his left hand. Hennagir, who surprised his sister at her Nov. 4 wedding by walking her down the aisle, wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on the bunny hill.
“It’s a little easier than I thought,” Hennagir said of skiing. “It’s got its hard points, but it’s easier to stay up and turn than I thought it would be.”
Friday morning, breakfast was a bit chattier, as the soldiers shared stories of what parts of the mountain they went to Thursday, and where they planned on going that day.
“Next week, all we’ll talk about is the Vail trip and what we did,” said Gregory Cartier, who, along with the other 26 veterans on the trip, is rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “People who weren’t here will be jealous and want to sign up for next year.”
Five years ago, when Vail resident Cheryl Jensen was having dinner with a Pentagon official in Washington, D.C., an idea popped into her head.
“The official was telling me about the horrific injuries soldiers were suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jensen said. “I told her that we need to take them skiing. She said, ‘You don’t understand, they are missing arms and legs.'”
One month later, Jensen met Maj. David Rozelle at a cocktail party in Vail and shared her idea for a veterans skiing program with him. Rozelle lost his lower right leg in 2003 fighting in Iraq, and became the first American solider since the Civil War to return to battle as an amputee. An administrator for the Amputee Care Center at Walter Reed, Rozelle jumped on the idea immediately.
“He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You raise me the money and get it organized, and I’ll get you soldiers,'” Jensen said.
A few months later, the first nine participants of the Vail Veterans Program arrived to ski for two days.
“When I started I said let’s just do it one year, and we felt like we really gave back,” Jensen said. “On the very last night (of the first program), we felt pretty good, and one of the double-above-the-knee amputees told me he didn’t know why we did it for him, but we changed his life. We realized we created something that was special and we were going to continue it.”
In its third year, the Vail Veterans Program expanded to include a summer outing ” Jensen got the idea when visiting a solider from Louisiana who said he had no desire to be in the cold ” and the winter program added another day of skiing in its third year.
“In the third year, we realized we had something special and said, ‘Let’s add an extra day,'” Jensen said. “The third day became the day they succeed.”
Just this year, Jensen decided to add an early winter session specifically for veterans with spinal cord injuries. For all programs, each participant can bring a guest with them for the entirely free trip.
“You never go out trying to change 100 peoples’ lives,” said Jensen, who was given the Secretary of Defense Award for Outstanding Public Service for her efforts with the Vail Veterans Program. “You go out trying to change one life, and if you can change one, it’s worth the effort. Now, we’ve hosted over 150 veterans in the summer and winter and have a huge impact on their lives.”
On his second day, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Heck was snowboarding 10 yards ahead of his instructor and linking turns ” a big leap from his first day when his instructor was holding him up as he shuffled down the hill.
“Learning how to do things like this ” and confidence ” is huge,” said Heck, who lost his right arm just below the elbow and half of his right foot, and had his left leg, kneecap and left arm shattered.
He’s got three plates and 26 screws in the left arm, along with nerve and vein grafts from other parts of his body. Still, Heck moved down the slope with balance and calm.
“Being able to get on a snowboard is pretty cool. It makes me feel independent and self-reliant.” he said. “I had some pretty high ambitions to begin with. I used to race bikes … so getting back on a bike this summer is an absolute for me. It will happen.”
“Again, confidence level,” he said. “Instead of being worried about ‘Can I do this,’ it’s more, ‘It will happen,’ instead of, ‘Will it happen?'”
As was true on the slopes last week, where fellow wounded veterans cheered each other on, confidence can be infectious back at Walter Reed.
Mark Little, a first lieutenant with the 3rd Infantry who lost both of his legs below the knees on Sept. 7, was afraid he wasn’t going to be able to roller-skate again until he met someone with a similar injury.
“That was my biggest concern ” not, ‘Geeze, I just got my legs blown off,’ but that I’m not going to be able to skate,” he said. “They contacted one of my predecessors who had inline skates made for him and he came by and showed them to me and at that point I said, ‘Golden. Nothing is out of my reach now.’
“That’s what I do and encourage the other guys to do now ” go to the newcomers and show them. Bring them a pair of skates or the snowboard movie of you. Try to motivate them to get up.”
Three weeks before coming to Vail, Little got back on his rollerblades. He had hoped to be walking by Christmas, and was doing it comfortably by the end of November. By lunch on Thursday, Little had a solid grasp of snowboarding.
“Don’t tell too many people ” I’m going to try skiing tomorrow,” he said. “Just to do it, and see how it feels. I was skier before I was a snowboarder.”
Dr. Allison Franklin, the director of Blast Injury Rehab Services at Walter Reed, sees the Vail Veterans program as more than just a four-day jaunt in the mountains.
“When we get back … they are transformed,” she said. “They have an increased confidence in themselves and in their abilities. For some of them, it’s learning something that they’ve never done before with a new injury ” and proving they can do it and do it well is huge.
“Some of them, it’s proving that they can go back to things they’ve already done that they love to do, but thought they weren’t able to do now that they are hurt.”
Along with their time on the slopes, the wounded veterans also got a chance to forget about rehabilitation for a while and just live.
“Some of the guys haven’t been off the campus of the hospital,” Franklin said. “Not only are we bringing them to a new state, but they are navigating the airport for the first time and navigating the hotel. They get here and learn the public transportation.
“It goes beyond skiing. It’s getting them back into the community and proving they can get around by themselves and live in a building. Every aspect of (the trip) helps build skills for them in the long run.”
The soldiers’ achievements on the mountain also helps family members with the recovery process. Jensen was talking with Hope Wagner, the mother of one of the wounded veterans in this year’s program, and mentioned that her son, Bryan, was with Franklin at mid-Vail for lunch.
“She thought something had happened,” Jensen said. “I showed her where mid-Vail was and she asked how he got up there. I told her he skied there. She looked at me and just started crying. She said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I haven’t cried one tear since he got injured eight months ago ” I had to be so strong. But now I know he’s going to be OK.’ That’s the reason we bring the family out.”
Each day, after breakfast, the soldiers went their own way with their instructors. They stopped for lunch whenever and wherever they felt like.
“To me, one of the greatest things about this trip is it’s not that structured,” Heck said sitting with his uncle and instructor inside the Golden Peak Lodge Friday during lunch. “We show up in the morning, have breakfast, then they let you alone and do what you want to do and hang out with you. Right now we’re probably going to call it a day early, go shopping, see some of the town.”
Little, who picked up skiing in no time Friday, decided to give snowmobiling a try Saturday. Gregory Cartier, who had both of his eyes punctured by an improvised explosive device, said with a big grin Friday morning that his ski instructor kicked his butt by taking him off some cliffs and through some trees. He was ready for more.
“This is overwhelming,” Cartier said. “Back at Walter Reed there are organizations around and they will invite you to dinner, but it’s nothing like coming to Vail and having a personal instructor for three days.”
“Without the support they put in, we couldn’t do this,” Hennagir added. “It allows us to try it for free. It spares us a big expense.”
Jensen said that 90 percent of the lodging is donated to the program, along with the lift tickets, plane flights, and many other goods and services, and they receive discounts on lessons. Thursday morning the soldiers hit the mountain with new jackets and gloves ” “we found them in our rooms.”
All they had to do was show up with a desire to learn.
“This community rolls out the red carpet,” Jensen said.
Franklin thinks little things ” like Jensen matching ski instructors with soldiers’ personalities ” go a long way.
“It’s one of the most fantastic programs I’ve been involved with and we have a lot of programs at Walter Reed,” Franklin said. “This one consistently sends the patients back with very positive messages. Even one of the patients a few years back, who we didn’t think had a very good experience here, comparatively, because they didn’t talk much, came back to Walter Reed two years later and said, ‘This was the turning point of my therapy.'”
As the needs of wounded veterans change, Jensen hopes to be there to help.
“We’re creating a few new programs. They’re still in my head and I haven’t penciled them out yet, but one is we want to have one just for women ” Women of War. And we’ll have a super-star heli-ski trip for those who have attended in the past,” she said.
Of the former participants, there are two Paralympic hopefuls ” one woman in swimming for the 2008 Games and a guy in skiing for the 2010 Games.
“Our long-term goal is, when there aren’t as many double amputees, when the war ends, we want to be able to stay in touch and invite them back,” Jensen said. “That’s been the goal since year three, thinking the war would end. We hope at one point it can become the Vail Veterans Alumni Program.”
One thing Jensen seems to be able to count on, along with the community’s support, is the soldiers’ desire to participate. Hennagir said if he’s still at Walter Reed next year, he’ll definitely be back.
“I’ve got to get better at this monoskiing,” he said.
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.