Vail Veterans Program expands to let families join in the fun
Bobby Henline’s trip to Vail this week is about more than snowboarding, it’s about a vacation he can enjoy with his wife and three children for the first time in a long time.
Henline is one of many Iraq War veterans in town for the Vail Veterans Program, which Vail resident Cheryl Jensen founded in 2004.
Henline, from San Antonio, Texas, was injured in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq on April 7, 2007. He suffered burns on about 40 percent of his body, including his face, and lost his left hand. His wife, Connie, cries as she listens to her husband of 16 years describe what happened to him.
It’s been a long time since he’s done something physically active like snowboarding, and he couldn’t be more grateful. The injuries didn’t only affect Bobby Henline, they affected his entire family, he said.
“It’s incredible to have the family here to do something together,” Henline said. “It’s a good break for all of us.”
That’s what the Vail Veterans Program is all about. Veterans not only get to experience snowsports and enjoy the freedom from the hospitals and their daily routines, but now their families, too, can get a break. Jensen decided to invite the families of veterans for the first time this year, whereas before only their spouses would come along.
“We feel really lucky to be able to do this,” Connie Henline said.
Mike Estes was enjoying the break Friday. He helped ski instructors strap his his stepson, Jason Ehrhart, 24, into a bi-ski. Ehrhart suffered a traumatic brain injury in December of 2005 from a road-side bomb in Iraq and spent three months in a coma and another seven months in a Richmond, Va., hospital. Estes has helped taking care of Ehrhart for the past four years – caring for him requires full-time work.
He said because of the care Ehrhart needs, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable sending him to Vail by himself. The fact that families were also invited means the world to him.
“This is nice for me,” Estes said.
Estes said the two Vail ski instructors helping Ehrhart for the weekend, Jim Fleischer and Chris Gilbert, are like babysitters for the day, and he completely trusts them after seeing the way they worked with Ehrhart on Thursday.
“I don’t worry one bit – he’s in good hands,” Estes said.
The instructors make sure not to get in the way of the skiing and snowboarding, either. Fleischer said he’ll call out turns to Ehrhart and hold on from behind to help steer, but “he’s pretty much skiing on his own,” Fleischer said.
Ehrhart said the experience has been awesome. He tried skiing a couple of times back east, but Vail is something special, he said.
As for everyone involved in the Vail Veterans Program, from the servers in local restaurants to Jensen to the ski instructors, Ehrhart appreciates their hospitality. They’ve made it easy on him to enjoy the vacation for what it is, leaving many of his worries behind, at least temporarily.
“Everybody is so nice,” Ehrhart said.
Jensen thought the Vail Veterans Program would be a one-time thing, and six years later she’s hosting participants twice in the winter and once in the summer.
She said part of the January program’s mission is to fulfill needs, which is exactly what inviting families to Vail with their loved ones is doing. Jensen wants to make sure the veterans know their sacrifices for America are never forgotten.
After six years, Jensen still gets teary-eyed when she talks about the program and all of the people in the Vail community who make it possible with donations and volunteering.
“Vail definitely throws out the red carpet for them,” Jensen said.
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