WASHINGTON, March 5, 2006 - Wounded troops participating in the third annual Vail Veterans Program here got a surprise visit on the ski slopes today when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived to cheer them on and congratulate them for their accomplishments.
Rumsfeld and his wife Joyce appeared unannounced last night, joining 24 servicemembers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan at the top of Vail Mountain for dinner at the Eagle's Nest Restaurant.
The secretary spent the evening circulating among the program participants, all patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and their spouses and guests. He also attended a dinner hosted by the Vail Fire Department for the program participants.
He chatted one-on-one with the troops, posed for photos around the room and offered up encouragement and thanks to all, including the Vail Veterans Program organizers and volunteers.
Today, Rumsfeld took to the ski slopes to see firsthand how the veterans were applying the skills they are learning this week.
The program, hosted by Vail Mountain and the Vail community, gives wounded war veterans an all-expenses-paid opportunity to learn how to ski and snowboard. It kicked off March 1 and wraps up tomorrow.
Rumsfeld said he was delighted to see the veterans' progress. "Being outside in fresh air and having a chance to physically do something like this, I think it gives them a sense of freedom they wouldn't otherwise get," he said.
The secretary acknowledged that improvements that provide better, faster medical care on the battlefield are helping ensure wounded troops who might have once died now survive, albeit in some cases with amputations and other disabilities.
Similarly, improved prosthetics and other accommodations are enabling these troops to do things once never considered possible, including, in some cases, continuing to serve in the military, he said.
Through their accomplishments on the ski slopes, veterans in the Vail Veterans Program can have a big impact not just on their own lives, but on those of their fellow wounded troops, Rumsfeld said. "They inspire others to achieve things they might not otherwise have aspired to," he said, calling the impact "a ripple effect."
Rumsfeld said he was pleased that the program includes wounded veterans' spouses or significant others, saying he's been "really inspired" to see how solidly families have supported them as they rebuild their lives. "What amazes me is how the strength of the troops migrates into the families," who he said "are strong and proud" of their loved ones' military service.
That same kind of support, such as the Vail community is demonstrating through the Vail Veterans Program, is critical for America's men and women in uniform, the secretary said. He cited the country's generosity, both at home and overseas. "It says a lot about our country," he said.
It also says a lot to America's servicemembers sacrificing for their country. "If you do something you believe is important, it is reinforcing to have other people also demonstrate that it's important," Rumsfeld said.
The participants had rave reviews for the program, which organizer Cheryl Jensen said is designed to help boost their confidence by exploring their abilities rather than their disabilities.
"I'm having a blast!" said Army 1st Lt. Frank Washburn, a New York National Guardsman who lost the front half of his foot to an improvised explosive device near Samarra, Iraq, last May.
"This is the most fun I've had since I've been injured," agreed Army Staff Sgt. Joe Kapacziewski. "It was awesome!" Kapacziewski received extensive leg and arm injuries in Northern Iraq while serving with the 3rd Ranger Battalion. While doctors were able to save his leg, 18 pins are holding it together as it heals.
"Completely exhilarating" was how Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Worley, a corpsman who lost most of his left leg in Fallujah, Iraq in September 2004 and has a fused right ankle, summed up his skiing experience through the program.
Worley praised the "motivated, caring people" who put the program together. "They're determined to make sure we have a good time, if we want to or not," he laughed.
Participants said they were also impressed that Rumsfeld took the time from his schedule to check out the program personally and meet with the wounded troops it is serving.
"I think the fact that he's here to hang out is absolutely awesome," said Washburn.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jose Ramos, who lost an arm serving in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division Sniper Platoon, said he wishes the media would give more coverage to Rumsfeld's personal interaction with wounded troops. "It's something you never hear about, and we really appreciate him coming here," he said.
Army 1st Lt. Ryan Hollin, a below-the-knee amputee who was wounded in Balad, Iraq, agreed. "His coming here to support us physically shows that he appreciates our sacrifices," he said. "It's one thing to say you support the troops. But his actions show that he really means it."
Hey, Colo peoples, this beer's on me. Fantastic job looking after our vets!