Wounded Heroes Family Adventures brings in veterans, families for a week in the mountains
August 4, 2016
Joseph Sandlin and his family look forward to returning to Colorado, joining Wounded Heroes Family Mountain Experience for the second time. Sandlin, his fiancée Dana Pullum, and two sons will come to Breckenridge for a week as a "mentor family" with the program, helping the families who will join them next week get to know each other.
"We got to meet some friends for life," Sandlin reminisced. "We got to share some of the issues with each individual family to let them know they're not alone in this fight. We share the same symptoms, the same problems."
Sandlin, a former sergeant with the U.S. Army, did two tours in Iraq with the 2-11th field artillery regiment. He was later deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 101st airborne division.
That November, he was awarded a purple heart after he sustained a traumatic brain injury from a suicide bomber.
"It was the first time I really got hit outside of my vehicle. I was on my feet," he said. "I had shrapnel in my hip. … I remember bits and pieces. I remember the flash and some other stuff."
He was medivac'd out of Afghanistan before he was medically retired in Fort Campbell. In Tennessee, he met Dana.
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"That was just meant to be — hook, line and sinker," he said. "Dana, she's an awesome person. She's got an awesome personality, too; she's just easy to talk to."
Last summer, Sandlin said with her outgoing personality and experience working with PTSD, she brought the entire group together.
"We'll go up there and see if she can work her magic again," he chuckled. "I think she can."
Dana's magic is just one of many pieces bringing together the program, hosted three times a year by Wounded Heroes Family Adventures. Another piece, Bob and Bonnie Miller came together to create the local nonprofit in 2008, offering ski trips for veterans and their families throughout the winter.
A few years ago, the program expanded to the summer, partnering with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center to offer rock climbing, high ropes courses, kayaking and more.
"It's a really neat bonding experience," said Jules Stennes, a volunteer who helps lead the summer camp. "This program is unique, in that it's small and local even though we have families from all over the world."
She and her husband, Patch, became involved in the program while working at Breckenridge Grand Vacations, which provides a week of lodging for the families. They have volunteered for four years since, hosting dinners with families and leading them through the great outdoors.
"There's that outdoor activity element that we love, exposing people to new experiences," she said.
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PIECES
Next week, the program will host a total of nine families. As it is, most are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans working through everything from knee injuries to PTSD.
"The idea is to get families more comfortable," Stennes said. "This is way to unwind, I think, from their daily challenges."
Last June, Wounded Heroes Family Adventures launched a new summer program with BOEC's help. The four-day program, known as Family Mountain Adventure, hosts families at BOEC's Griffith Lodge near the base of Peak 9. BOEC also offers scholarships for the program.
Throughout the entire year of programs, Wounded Heroes Family Adventures will also bring in counselors to lead family enrichment programs, helping educate families about communication, traumatic injuries and PTSD.
"You don't hear too much about it in the public eye," Sandlin said. "The more you know about something, the more you can combat it."
Denise Hargon, a retired Army officer and board member with Wounded Heroes Family Adventures, said they interview families before and after each program to determine what worked well, and what needs to change.
"One of our main goals is to improve communication and awareness within families," she said. "These people stay in touch. They're friends after they leave.
It's just a very powerful thing for them to have that support from someone else who's going through the same thing they're going through."
Stennes added that while it might take time for the families to get to know each other and build trust, the end result is worth it.
"It's heartwarming and heartbreaking to hear their stories," she said. "It's rewarding work. It's exciting to see a group come together."
Sandlin still talks to families all over the country, from Arkansas to Florida. He added that he and his family would continue to spread the word about the program to other veterans, so they might experience it, too.
"We're just so grateful for Patch and Jules bringing this together; they're just amazing people," he said. "We go to places like this and make lifelong friends."
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