Kurt Wigger stands over a grill loaded down with locally caught trout, antelope meatballs and steaks, elk bratwursts and grilled pheasant. It’s the second day of National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, and the Elks Club of Glenwood Springs is pulling out all the stops.
Nearly 400 veterans are participating in activities through the valley, from March 31 through April 4. The Elks host lunch for a different group of servicemen each day.
Wigger, a 50-year pillar of the valley’s food service industry and former owner of the Sopris Restaurant and Buffalo Valley, has been serving as a chef for the event for six or seven years.
“It’s one day a year I don’t mind working for free,” he says. “I love to give something back for what they did for us.”
Phil Long begins slicing the meat for serving. Long grew up in the hotel business and was brought in by the Elks when they first started serving lunch alongside their now-discontinued shooting event 16 years ago. It was his idea to bring in game and to recruit Wigger as a chef.
“We originally started with hot dogs and hamburgers, and then came up with the idea of a taste of Colorado,” Long reflects.
Over the years, the Elks have brought all sorts of meat to the table. Hunters and fisherman from around the state donate game.
“It all depends on what the hunters are able to get,” Long says.
Bear and mountain lion have been on the menu. For many of the veterans, it’s their only exposure to the exotic meats of the West.
“These gentlemen get plain old food all the time,” Long observes. “We want them to remember Colorado for something.”
Not all the meat is typical Colorado fare: Alligator and caribou have also made an appearance
Inside, Ralph Carbello of Miami is enjoying his meal while his alert service dog, Cody, naps on his lap. Carbello, now 75 and confined to a wheelchair, served in the Air Force from 1959 to 1968. It’s his second time attending the clinic.
“I had the best time of my life last year, and I couldn’t wait to come back again,” he says. “I buried my father last year — a 97-year-old World War II vet. He would have loved this.”
Last year, Carbello tried out kayaking for the first time and found himself hooked. He now goes kayaking in the harbor at home once a week. This year, he tried rock climbing.
“Every time I come back I try to do something a little different,” he says.
Cody joins him in each adventure. Carbello pulled him up the climbing wall, and bought him a special vest for kayaking. According to Dennis Norris, another Miami vet who served in the army from 1975 through 1979, the dog is a “chick magnet.”
Carbello admits that it doesn’t take long for women to gather when he pulls up on his specially modified motorcycle with Cody in the side car.
“I sit there wishing I was 50 years younger,” he admits.
It’s Norris’ first year attending, and he’s not used to the level of interest and community involvement out West.
“Miami is a big town. Everyone has their own thing going on,” he observes.
“The hospitality is unbelievable,” Carbello agrees. “It’s amazing that people take the time to give to us.”
That’s not to say they’re not taken care of back home.
“I’m grateful to the people who work in the Miami VA,” he adds. “If it wasn’t for their efforts, we wouldn’t be here.”
Raphael Hernandez is the physical therapist for Carbello and Norris and is responsible for a dozen veterans from the Miami area he helped recruit to attend the clinic.
“This is part of their rehabilitation,” he explains.
The Miami VA fundraises year-round to send their veterans to the winter clinic as well as the summer games in San Diego. It’s a lot of work, but it means they can go for a fraction of what they’d pay without the support.
“There is no money to replace the joy that you get,” Hernandez says.
As the luncheon wraps up, volunteers begin handing out bags of elk jerky for the road. Nelson Rivera shows off some magic tricks to the stragglers.
Rivera is new to the Elks, having recently retired and moved to the valley from Indiana. He served in the Navy during Vietnam. His father was a magician and Rivera has been doing magic since he was 7.
“My goal, since the lord was good to me, is to help entertain people and bring happiness,” he says.
Patrick Stowe, Exalted Ruler of the Glenwood Springs Elk Lodge, has similar sentiments.
“Veterans are one of the major points of the Elks organizations,” he says.
They certainly have a large and enthusiastic group of people putting the event on.
“Really our base of volunteers does all the work,” he adds. “It’s our blessing to be able to be here with these men and women that have served this country.”