Vail Veteran’s Program takes our injured soldiers to the outdoors
Less than six months ago Keith Maul had two arms and two legs – now he’s learning to get around with a prosthetic right arm and right leg after a grenade exploded on top of his vehicle near Baghdad.
You’d never know it happened so recently – Maul is moving around almost effortlessly and his attitude is positive.
“I just try to be happy and cheerful around everybody,” he said.
Maul is one of 14 of veterans in town for the Vail Veteran’s Program. Different groups of injured soldiers come to Vail in both the winters and the summers to get active and realize their injuries can’t stop them from doing whatever they want to accomplish, said Cheryl Jensen, the program’s founder.
This week, the veterans spent time at the Yarmony Creek Lodge, about 20 miles northwest of Wolcott. The veterans were fishing, horseback riding, rafting, camping and skeet shooting.
When Jensen started the program more than six year ago, she thought she’d host it once and that would be it. She immediately became hooked and now hosts four groups every year.
“It’s a lot of work, but when I see them out here, see them doing something they’ve never done before, that feeling of success – it’s very fulfilling for me to see how much fun they’re having,” ,” she said.
Harvey Naranjo, an Army occupational and physical therapist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, hasn’t found anything that an injured veteran cannot physically do.
Naranjo has been working at the center for six years and has seen wounded soldiers coming in almost daily. For most of the physical injuries he sees, there’s almost always emotional wounds as well.
“For them to come here and feel appreciated is more than anything we can do in the hospital,” Naranjo said. “For them to experience life out here is really the best treatment out there.”
The men and woman in the program typically go back to Washington and tell other Walter Reed patients about their experiences in Vail. The tales mean that Naranjo has a constant waiting list of veterans trying to be a part of the fun.
“We’re giving them some sort of outlet after injury,” Naranjo said. “Here they’re told to be proud of their sacrifice – to continue to enjoy life.”
The injuries vary from lost limbs to paralysis to post traumatic stress disorder, but whatever the injuries are, volunteers treat veterans all the same, said Josh Perkins, a ski instructor volunteer in the winter and a Jeep tour volunteer for Timberline Tours.
Perkins said when he’s leading tours or ski instructing, the injured veterans are just like anyone else. If they fall, he tells them to get up – there’s no special treatment. The veterans are there to learn and regain confidence in themselves and their abilities, he said.
“I figure out what I need to do with what we have,” Perkins said. “I feel lucky. I look forward to this week in the summer and those two weeks in winter more than any other time of the year. It changes who you are as a person.”
The volunteers seem to get as much out of it as the veterans, he said. Everyone comes away from the program with a feeling of at least a little inspiration.
Neal Cabamting, an Army veteran who lost his left leg below the knee during basic training in Fort Knox, Ky., said it feels great to get outside and breath some fresh air. Some veterans back at Walter Reed told him he’d have an “awesome time” if he came to Vail. They were right.
“Just being outside, it’s cool,” Cabamting said. “It’s a stress relief.”
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Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or email@example.com