Mar 07 Veterans Get Active Again in Vail

March 10, 2009, 2:29 p.m. (ET)

VAIL, Colorado - When Kade Hinkhouse, who's visiting Vail, Colorado this week, was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., four years ago, an active lifestyle was practically out of the question.

At just 19, Hinkhouse was recovering from having his right leg amputated and half his skull removed. The improvised explosive device that penetrated his Humvee paralyzed him and put him in a wheelchair.

"I kind of thought I'd be on my butt most of the time watching TV," he said.

Now 23, Hinkhouse knows that his initial assessment was completely off base.

On Thursday morning, Hinkhouse, along with 25 other wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, readied himself for a day of skiing on Vail Mountain.

For Hinkhouse, it was his third trip with the Vail Veterans Program, a nonprofit organization started by longtime local Cheryl Jensen that sponsors four annual programs for wounded veterans to get out and enjoy the outdoors and overcome their unexpected disabilities.

For others, like Juan Roldan, Thursday was his first time skiing. He was joined by his mother and nearly 2-year-old daughter, Bryana.

"I'm anxious. I've never skied before," Roldan, of New Jersey, said. "I'm more anxious because I brought my daughter. My mom has never skied before either. So I thought it would be kind of special."

Roldan, like Hinkhouse, was a victim of an IED explosion and uses a wheelchair, but that isn't a problem for the Vail ski instructors who outfit the veterans with either a mono-or bi-ski that attaches to the bottom of the chair.

Instructor Paul Curnette is sure Roldan and the other first-timers will be accomplished skiers by the time they leave Sunday, and they'll have a good time doing it. "These guys have so much fun," Curnette said. "It's a chance for them to get up, to enjoy Vail and have some real fun."

Curnette taught Hinkhouse to ski when he made his initial trip two years ago, starting with the magic carpet.

"By the end of it, we were in the Back Bowls," Curnette said.

The veterans program, in its sixth year, not only provides the opportunity for wounded veterans to adapt and learn ostensibly daunting tasks, it also leaves some of the veterans wanting more.

Carla Best, of Aurora, learned how to ski in February when the program was last in Vail. She came back weeks later to hone the skills she learned.

"So this is my third time," Best, 33, said. "Not only am I excited to go up again but I'm getting better at my moves."

Best, who served in the Army for six years, said the veterans program has whet her appetite for skiing, and she'll be back in Vail or another ski resort, riding her monoski.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely," she said.

Neither Best nor Hinkhouse, the more accomplished skiers of the group, are quite ready to offer tips to their buddies yet, but they're getting close. The training can wait, though.

"The best part, I'd say, would have to be going out there skiing and enjoying the snow - being out there skiing, making new friends, meeting up with old friends," Hinkhouse said.

The veterans will spend the rest of the week skiing and conclude their trip Saturday evening at the Vail Fire Department, where the crew will cook them dinner.

Dustin Racioppi can be reached at 970-748-2936 or dracioppi@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily - www.vaildaily.com

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