American Supports You: Ski Program Recharges Wounded Vets
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
VAIL, Colo., March 6, 2006 Amputees being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., wrapped up the third annual Vail Veterans Program here yesterday, having taken another step ahead in their rehabilitation and more convinced than ever that they have the support of the American people.
Army Sgt. Tim Gustafson, a Tennessee National Guardsman participating in the Vail Veterans Program at Vail, Colo., gets instruction on how to traverse the slopes on a "bi-ski" from Carl Desrosiers, of the Vail Adaptive Ski Program. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The 24 veterans, who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent three days here at this world-class ski resort, courtesy of Vail Mountain and the Vail community. While enjoying the red-carpet treatment with free lodging, meals, ski gear, lift tickets and lessons, they skied and snowboarded their way to new emotional and physical milestones.
"This is the most unique program because it provides one-on-one instruction and care for our veterans at the most important point in their lives," said Army Capt. Dave Rozelle. Rozelle, who lost part of his foot in Iraq and then returned to duty there, now serves as administrator for Walter Reed's Amputee Care Center.
While participants in the Vail program challenge each other on the slopes, there's no last-day race and no sense of competition, Rozelle said. "Everyone here finds success in their own way," he said.
"This program is about getting on the slopes and doing things you never thought you would do again," said former Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell, who was medically retired after losing her leg in Iraq.
Army Lt. Col. Barbara Springer, chief of Walter Reed's physical therapy service, said it's exciting to watch the transformation that takes place on the slopes. "I've seen a lot of people turn the corner," she said. "By the end of the first day, you could see the big smiles ... (and) the sense of accomplishment on their faces."
That accomplishment will have a long-term effect on the wounded servicemembers' recovery, she said. "Once they build up their confidence to the point where they can face a challenge and meet that challenge, then they feel like they can do anything after that," Springer said.
Nikola Nemcanin, an instructor at the Vail Adaptive Ski School who worked with the veterans, shared Stringer's excitement in watching the veterans realize their capabilities. "We show them what they can do, not what they can't do," he said. "It's really great to see the smiles on their faces when they realize what they've achieved."
"These people are just super in instilling confidence again," said Army Lt. Col. Dennis Walburn, who lost part of his leg to a roadside bomb in Mosul, Iraq, last May. Walburn, an avid skier before his injury, was making solid progress on the slopes using a single ski and outrigger ski poles.
Army Sgt. Joe Kapacziewski, a 3rd Ranger Battalion soldier who received extensive leg and arm injures in northern Iraq, admitted he was a little nervous about his first experience on skis. "My doctors didn't really want me to do this," fearing an accident could set back his progress, he said. But Kapacziewski decided to give it a go anyway.
"I'm so glad I did. It's absolutely awesome," he said of his experience on a "bi-ski," specially adapted for disabled skiers. "This is the most fun I've ever had since I've been injured."
Rozelle, who has been involved with the Vail Veterans Program since it started three years ago, said veterans' experiences on the mountain translates directly to their progress when they return home. "When they go back to Walter Reed, they take their rehabilitation much more seriously," he said. "This gives them a new goal."
"Morale goes up" when troops return from an experience such as the Vail program, agreed Harvey Naranjo, an occupational therapy assistant at the hospital who accompanied the wounded troops to the event. "They're recharged and re-energized to continue to get ready to fully live their lives."
By "living their lives," Naranjo said, he means living without feeling bound by a disability. "We don't want them just to walk," he said. "We want them to run and to ski and to do whatever it is they'd like to do."
Based on the veterans' progress on the slopes, Naranjo said he felt good about the care he and his coworkers at Walter Reed are providing. "Some of my patients are better than me," he said. "That lets me know that we are doing the right thing at the hospital. We are on the right track."
While enjoying their ski experience, participants in the Vail Veterans Program said the outpouring of support they received from the Vail community wowed them. "This is a package that's overwhelming," said Army 1st Lt. Frank Washburn, a New York National Guardsman who lost the front half of his foot to a roadside bomb in Iraq in May while serving with the 467th Engineer Battalion.
The hospitality started when Washburn checked into his luxury condominium -- where a suitcase packed with a ski jacket, ski goggles, a souvenir coffee cup and other gifts awaited him -- and never let up through the five-day event. "They've really gone out of their way for us," Washburn said.
"The outpouring is just awesome," agreed Army Pfc. Justin Leon, a 101st Airborne Division soldier who lost his right arm in Kirkuk, Iraq, in December.
"Our community wanted to figure out a way to give back to you and your families and your friends," Cheryl Jensen, the event's organizer, told participants at their closing-night dinner, hosted by the Vail Fire Department March 4.
One of the firemen called the dinner payback for the veterans' service and sacrifices overseas. "It all goes back to the (attack on the) World Trade Center. We lost 343 of our brothers and sisters in that tower, so it's a privilege for us to be serving you who are overseas kicking ass over there," he said.
Former Marine Sgt. Christopher Fesmire, who was medically retired from the 1st Marine Division after an anti-tank mine left him a double above-the-knee amputee in October 2004, said it's evident to him that Americans from all corners share the fireman's sentiment and support the troops. "It's from everybody," he said. "I've been finding that across the board people are supportive."