Colorado Town Welcomes Wounded Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

VAIL, Colo., March 8, 2007 - For the fourth consecutive year, 25 veterans wounded in the global war on terrorism will test their mettle on the slopes thanks to the Vail Veterans Program's winter sports clinic that kicked off here yesterday.

"We're really a stepping stone in their recovery. This is therapeutic for them to be here," Cheryl Jensen, director of the Vail Veterans Program said during a kick-off dinner here yesterday. "By the time they leave here, they're totally comfortable with themselves or have confidence that they never had.

"They grow emotionally and physically while they're here in a matter of four days," she added.

Army Maj. Dave Rozelle, administrator for Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Amputee Care Center, knows how true this is. He lost part of his right foot while serving in Iraq in 2003. He told the group that skiing had made him feel free and independent after his injury.

"I felt like an angel coming down that mountain," he said. "I hope you all find the same freedom I did."

Rozelle served a second tour in Iraq after being injured.

The Vail Veterans Program can offers this weekend to the servicemembers thanks, in part, to the generosity of this community, Jensen said. Lodging for the troops and the majority of the airfare to get them to the slopes here was donated. The story is the same for equipment rental, lift tickets, instruction for the veterans and their guests. Most meals, including a special meal on the final evening prepared by the local firefighters, are gratis, as well.

For five of the veterans, this winter sports clinic is old hat, and they'll serve as mentors, Jensen said. The other 20 servicemembers are patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, and this is the first major trip away from the facility for most of them.

Throughout the program, which concludes March 11, the wounded warriors receive private instruction in a number of snow sports, including skiing and snowboarding. To accommodate their injuries, which include missing limbs, the instructors help them learn to use adaptive equipment, Jensen said.

While the veterans are acquiring or polishing their skills, their guests participate in group lessons. While Willow Fesmire's husband, former Marine Sgt. Christopher Fesmire, who has gone through the program three times, works with the first-timers, she'll polish her snowboarding skills.

"(I'm) very excited," she said about her first experience with the program.

Sgt. Fesmire, an avid snowboarder before his injury, was medically retired from the 1st Marine Division after losing both legs above the knee in Qaim, Iraq, in October 2004.

First organized in 2004 as a one-time event, the Vail Veterans Program has earned nonprofit status and doubled the number of veterans it invited the first year. Still, it remains small enough to provide the veterans one-on-one attention, and that's what attracted the support of this year's title sponsor, the Wounded Warrior Project. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin, an aerospace manufacturer, also is sponsoring this year's event.

The Wounded Warrior Project is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting the ways Americans and the corporate sector are supporting the nation's servicemembers.

"It's a small-enough group to where everybody can know everybody and support one another," Bruce Nitsche, executive vice president of the Wounded Warrior Project, said. "I think it's more like being with your family, and I think when it's really a community-based program ... the level of caring comes through easier."

Nitsche added that his organization has signed on to sponsor two summer sports clinics the Vail Veterans Program will offer this year. The first summer clinic was held in 2006.

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