Wounded veterans visiting Vail get a taste of adventure while sharing stories
Vail Veterans Program hosts its latest winter session
VAIL — If you asked central casting to send you overachievers, you’d get back any number of participants from the Vail Veterans Program.
Dan Berschinski and Steve Snell, for instance.
All that’s good, they say, but shared experiences and values are better — to be around people who understand what your life was like before, what you went through and how good it can be again.
“The military gives veterans shared background and values,” Berschinski said.
People without any military perspective might not understand, Snell said, as he looked around at the people in town for this week’s Vail Veterans Program session while hanging out at the Larkspur restaurant at the base of Golden Peak.
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“We’ve all been through it. We might have different stories and backgrounds, but we get it. We talk like family,” Snell said.
Berschinski grew up in Georgia, wanted to become a military officer and earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy West Point.
It was 2009 and Lt. Berschinski was leading one of his first patrols in Afghanistan. His unit had been assigned to the Arghandab Valley, ground zero for the Taliban. Berschinski was medic David Luchetti’s first patient.
Berschinski stepped on an improvised explosive device that blew off both legs above the knee.
“He kept me alive for an hour with both my femoral arteries wide open,” Berschinski said.
Luchetti and other medical staffers stabilized him. He was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, seven days later.
“Eight months after that they put me on a plane and said ‘Go play in the snow,’” Berschinski.
He remembers Dan Patty, his ski instructor in that first Vail Veterans Program session, March 2010.
“He encouraged me to try things I had never tried and go places I didn’t think I could go,” he said. “It turned me into a lifelong skier.”
He skied every couple of years, usually asking a resort’s adaptive ski program for some gear. Last year the Veterans Administration bought him a Dyn-Access monoski — likely the first monoski the Atlanta VA has ever bought — and now you can’t keep him off the snow.
“For people with disabilities, it’s important to get out there in the outdoors, to feel the wind in your face and the sensation of speed,” Berschinski said.
He has prosthetics and can walk, but they don’t give him the kind of mobility he needs for athletics. That means a tennis chair for tennis, an arm bike for mountain biking and a monoski for skiing.
“I’m often limited where I can go in the world,” he said.
That monoski, though, is different. He can go anywhere on the mountain he has the skill and the will to go — which means he goes everywhere.
“On my monoski I can go anywhere. My only limit is my ability,” Berschinski said. “It’s a great way to move around in nature.”
The Vail Veterans Program is the best in the world, Berschinski said.
“Independence is a beautiful thing, especially in an outdoor setting as amazing as this,” he said.
He’s a big fan of the military mindset.
“The military helps you understand how strong and capable you are,” he said.
He’s retired from the military, and earned his MBA from Stanford and runs his own company in Georgia.
We now know better
Snell is a Marine to his very marrow. He lives near Kansas City with his wife Cassie and assorted cats and dogs. He was out last summer for five days of golf with a Vail Veterans Program golf session.
His golf-swing rotation isn’t quite what it should be. His back is stiff from all the battlefield injuries. He limps a little after an enemy grenade blew him off two flights of stairs and left him with a leg and hip full of shrapnel on Christmas Eve 2004 in Iraq.
March 2006 saw a suicide bomber hit his unit with a 500-pound bomb.
In those days, if nothing was dismembered or you weren’t bleeding profusely, Snell said the Marines sent them back into the field. Snell would regain consciousness after a blast and the other Marines would extend their hands and ask, “How many fingers am I holding up?” If your answer was close, back you went.
“We didn’t know any better. Now we know what they do,” Snell said.
The brain absorbs the blast’s impacts, which leads to traumatic brain injuries. Victims deal with things like dizziness, memory loss, mood swings and anxiety.
He builds scale models, works with his hands and credits his wife with keeping him sane.
The Vail Veterans Program is now 16 years old and has hosted more than 1,000 injured military veterans and their families.