Healing wounded soldiers on the slopes
April 19, 2008
BRECKENRIDGE ” For military wife Torrey Shannon, nothing could be further from the pain and frustration she felt during her husband’s three-year stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center than the joy she’s experienced this week in Breckenridge ” watching her 11-year-old son, Talon, learn to ski.
“It’s been amazing to see him go from nervous beginner to self-confident in just one day,” she said.
Shannon, her husband, and their three sons are in Summit County as part of “Soldiers Spring Ski Week ” 2008,” a retreat for wounded GIs and their families organized by part-time Breckenridge residents Bonnie and Bob Miller and facilitated by the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC).
At this year’s inaugural retreat, six soldiers and their families showed up to spend their days on the slopes of the Ten Mile range with BOEC staff and volunteers and their nights in Grand Timber Lodge units donated by individual owners.
The inclusion of family members in the ski activities distinguishes this week’s program from other area wounded soldier retreats.
“We invited the whole family to let the kids and wives see that anything can be overcome,” Bonnie said.
According to 38-year-old Shannon, whose husband, Dan, made the front page of the “Washington Post” last year when he testified before Congress about the problems faced by wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, a week in Breckenridge with her family has been a godsend.
“There are so many things I looked forward to about the trip,” she said. “I love the fact our family can get some time together.”
The last three and a half years haven’t been easy for the Shannons. An AK-47 took off a large section of Dan’s face, including his left eye, during a firefight in Ramadi in November 2004. Torrey recalled how the nightmare began for her and her sons.
“The Army left me a voice mail saying he had a shrapnel wound,” she said.
She and the boys were living in Suffolk, Va. at the time, and they immediately packed up and drove to Washington to be with Dan. Coping with the reality of their father’s life-changing wounds hasn’t been easy for Talon, Nick, 17, and Drake, 7, Torrey admitted.
“Being military kids, they’re very resilient,” she said. “But seeing your father come back with part of his face missing is hard.”
Dan finally received a total disability medical retirement in December, after more than three years in limbo in the military’s medical bureaucracy. Since his Congressional testimony, the system has improved somewhat for wounded soldiers, but services for families remain few and far between.
“Not to say there aren’t any resources for wives,” Torrey said. “I just haven’t seen them.”
With her infant child in daycare for the morning, Colorado Springs resident Stephanie Sibayan is skiing for the first time in her life.
Her husband, Gavin, and fellow wounded soldier Brandon Giggey originally met at the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany last fall. This week, both men, despite their severe injuries, are back on the slopes with a little help from BOEC adaptive mono-skis.
During their second ever ski day, Stephanie and Brandon’s wife, Becky, focused on things other than war and suffering.
“I think the scariest part was riding on the lift,” Becky said, when asked about her first impression of Alpine skiing.
Even though a knee injury she sustained on her first day skiing (“I zigged instead of zagged”) will keep her off the mountain for the rest of the week, Torrey Shannon can’t seem to stop smiling. Her husband and sons are receiving expert help from BOEC personnel while skiing on one of the most beautiful mountains in the country, and she’s getting to spend time with other families who have faced similar challenges.
“A lot of reconnecting is going on here,” she said.
According to Bonnie Miller, the success of the retreat depended on contributions from a variety of local sources: the individual Grand Timber owners who donated their units for the week, numerous businesses that contributed goods and/or services, and a committed group of volunteers, including five “host” families and BOEC personnel.
All this effort hasn’t been wasted, Torrey emphasized.
“Please tell the community that all of us have been really impressed with how we’ve been welcomed,” she said. “And that’s what’s important for the country: the actions we do to take care of each other.”