Vail Veterans Program welcomes an Israeli group
Those who have been invited to Vail Veterans Program events say these programs have changed their lives. Now this life-changing mountain therapy is reaching other veterans from other countries.
This week’s show featured a group of seven veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. These veterans are supported by Brothers for Life, an Israeli group that has much the same mission as the Vail Veterans Program – to provide injured veterans with support and respite from their daily lives.
A reception Tuesday at the Larkspur restaurant hosted the seven Israelis, along with some Vail veterans program participants and a number of local supporters.
During the event, attendees listened intently to Israel’s Imad Bader and Vail Veterans Program participants Greg Gasdon and Andrew Kinard. Both men lost their legs in combat in Iraq. Bader told the group he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, stemming from a 2010 incident near the Western Wall in Jerusalem that nearly killed him by an angry mob as he he was trying to stop two men about to throw incendiary devices.
Bader, 40, said he was still on active duty in the Israel Defense Forces, thanks to the work of Brothers For Life.
“It changed my life, it (brought) my life back to life,” Bader said. “My wife said ‘you came back to the same person.'”
More than physical injuries
In interviews before they spoke, both Gadson and Kinard said the same thing about Vail’s veterans program: “It changed my life.”
Gadson, a former US Army officer, said he made his first trip to Vail in the summer of 2007, just months after being injured in Iraq and losing both of his legs. He has returned almost every year since.
Gadson noted that a “fundamental premise” of the program is healing, not just for service members, but also for their families.
“The whole family was hurt,” Gadson said. After days of horseback riding, fly fishing and other pursuits, the Gadsons left the valley with a different outlook on life.
“We left here understanding and knowing that we were going to have to do things differently, but we were going to do it,” Gadson said. “I did everything I would have done if I had my legs.”
Valley resident Pete Thompson, a Vietnam Army veteran, noted that Gadson is now a “speed demon” on the slopes.
“Speed limits are for…” Gadson said, pausing, seemingly to avoid language more appropriate for a barracks.
“When I’m on these skis, I’m like everyone else,” Gadson said. “I’m not constrained…and as physically rewarding as it is, it’s exponentially more emotionally rejuvenating.”
It took Kinard a few years to come to the Vail Valley.
A former US Marine, Kinard also lost his legs in Iraq. Working on Wall Street after his injury, Kinard kept hearing about the freedom skiing can provide. After contacting his connections at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he participated in his first week of the Vail Veterans program in 2015.
“It’s sublime,” Kinard said of the skiing, noting that all the everyday obstacles of stairs and curbs disappear on snow. Skiing is also a very social activity, he added. “It was the first time I could do an activity with my friends,” he says. Success on the slopes also led to a desire for even more independence. Kinard these days can get from his car to the lift to the slopes without assistance.
A drive to stay up
It didn’t take long for Kinard to quit his job on Wall Street and spend a winter as a ski bum. Now living in Montana, Kinard is currently a ski instructor and he spent all day Monday with an Israeli veteran who is also in a wheelchair.
There have been many crashes, and there will be more this week. But, Kinard added, “the military tends to be very competitive…I could see it in his eyes…and I wanted to keep supporting that.”
Bringing in a group from Israel started in 2019 and restarted this year.
Dr. Matt Provencher and Cordillera resident Steven Wellins both helped open the program.
Provencher, a retired US Navy surgeon still working, was working at a Boston hospital when a fellow doctor approached him for help treating “injured warrior athletes.” Provencher was at one point one of the surgeons who helped treat the New England Patriots, so he’s well versed in orthopedic injuries.
After moving full-time to Vail a few years ago, Provencher met Cheryl Jensen, founder of the Vail Veterans Program, and learned about efforts to bring Israeli veterans to the Vail Valley.
Wellins also learned of the idea during a conversation with Jensen.
“I reached out to a lot of friends and we helped raise money to bring this first band to 2019,” Wellins said. These friends helped organize the current trip.
Wellins noted that the Israeli and American militaries are very connected and believe largely in the same things about democracy and freedom.
And, like most soldiers, veterans gathered on Tuesday said they would serve again.
Speaking to the group at Tuesday’s reception, Gadson said he and Kinard would do it again.
“Well, I would have taken a step left and not a right,” Kinard said.