Vail Opens Arms, Slopes, to Wounded Troops

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

VAIL, Colo., March 3, 2006  - Twenty-four servicemembers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan are here reaping the hospitality of a community first established by returning World War II veterans and to schuss down the slopes of this world-class ski resort.

The guests, all patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., along with their spouses or guests, are participating in the third annual Vail Veterans Program that kicked off March 1 and continues through March 5.

The all-expenses-paid program is hosted by Vail Mountain and the Vail community and gives wounded war veterans an opportunity to learn how to ski and snowboard, event organizer Cheryl Jensen said.

"For many of these veterans, the trip to Vail is their first adventure outside the hospital," Jensen said. "This program is all about providing an inspirational experience that focuses on the abilities versus disabilities."

Jensen said the experience is a huge confidence builder for young, athletic troops who are now learning to live with disabilities.

The event includes three all-day private ski and snowboard lessons through Vail's Adaptive Ski Program. The program specializes in providing ski and snowboard classes for people with disabilities. Using specially modified ski equipment, including "outriggers" -- poles with miniature skis attached to them for balance -- the skiers are learning to maneuver through Vail's slopes and trails.

Five of this year's group members participated in the program last year, and Jensen said it's exciting to see how much they've improved, both in terms of their medical conditions and their skiing abilities. Many other of this year's participants are on skis for their first time, but Jensen said they're making great progress and supporting each other as they tackle the challenges of skiing.

"These servicemembers have been through a lot of trials and tribulations together, but this gives them the opportunity to experience something positive together as well," Jensen said. "They're a really wonderful group and have been tremendously supportive of each other."

Countless volunteers and 25 local businesses and organizations are donating lodging, meals, lift tickets, ski equipment and personal time to make the grassroots effort a success. "Without the community, it just couldn't happen," Jensen said.

Participants arrived in Vail to a hero's welcome from local elementary school children and are getting the red-carpet treatment during their stay. Tonight, guests will ride the gondola to the top of Vail Mountain for dinner at the Eagle's Nest Restaurant, and tomorrow night, the Vail Fire Department will treat them to a homemade lasagna meal at the fire station.

"There is an unsaid promise to protect their families while they protect our freedom serving abroad," said Craig Davis, president of the Vail Professional Firefighters Association. "Inviting the veterans to dinner at our home is the least we can do to pay tribute."

Jensen introduced the Vail Veterans Program because she recognized the value it could bring to wounded veterans. "I knew what adaptive skiing can do for people with disabilities, especially people like these who are healthy and athletic," she said. "Skiing can change their lives."

One former participant told Jensen it had done just that for him. "That's the inspiration for this program, to see that it can make a difference," Jensen said.

Jensen called the program just one small way to show support for the troops. "They've all made tremendous sacrifices for us, and this is an opportunity to thank them," she said.

The program is small by design to promote bonding among participants, but Jensen said she's hoping to add a second winter program and possibly a summer program as well.

The Vail community has a strong track record in supporting the troops and actively supports the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program. In late January and early February, the Vail community hosted the 2006 Vail Armed Forces Week event. Two Marines who had been awarded the Purple Heart Medal, a 3rd Cavalry Division soldier who served in Iraq, and their families, and three wives of Navy SEALs killed in June 2005 participated.

"I want to express my appreciation for the invaluable support you provide to our men and women in uniform," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote to Paul Donen, the key organizer, following the event. "As a member of the 'America Supports You' team, your organization helps strengthen the bonds between our military and the Americans they serve.

"Thank you for letting servicemembers and their families know how much their fellow Americans value their courage, commitment and sacrifice," Rumsfeld wrote.