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Supporting Our Troops and Their Families
Anna Kournikova's USO Tour
Army Spouses Tell US: The Real Way to Support Troops
Why It Matters
Operation: No Boots Required
Wounded Vets Hit the Slopes
by Alison Singh Gee, TakePart.com

Vail Veterans Program

In July 2011, Kevin Dubois was a marine securing a helicopter-landing zone in Afghanistan when he placed his foot on an improvised explosive device. The blast tore him nearly in half, severing his legs off at his waist. It took four days to transport him to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “I don’t remember any of the trip,” says Dubois, a Rhode Island native. “The first thing I remembered was waking up with my wife by my bed.” Doctors were able to save him from about his stomach up.

Flash forward six months to January 2012 to find Dubois waking up to another life-changing moment: looking out the window of his hotel to see a foot of fresh powder snow covering Golden Peak, a popular ski venue in Vail, Colorado. Before his amputation, Dubois, 25, and his wife, Kayla, were avid snowboarders. On this day in January, Dubois strapped himself into a specially made chair that featured a molded seat to keep him from slipping out of place (photo top left). The chair was connected to a shock absorber that was in turn attached to a double ski. Sitting at breakfast with 55 other recently wounded veterans and their families, he clearly couldn’t wait to take his skis out for a run.

“We’re riding that today,” Dubois said, pointing up a looming slope. “We’re going everywhere on this mountain.”

Dubois is one of some 350 Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have survived traumatic incidents and loss of limbs, and then learned to ski as part of the Vail Veterans Program. Founded in 2003 by Vail humanitarian Cheryl Jensen and U.S. Army Major David Rozelle, the mission of the Vail Veteran’s Program is to teach amputee military service members and their families to ski, snowboard, river raft, and horseback ride with their loved ones. “We want to give these wounded warriors a chance to regain their confidence, to take time out with their loved ones away from a hospital, and give them hope for the future,” says Wendy Rimel, who works with the program.

Enthusiasts will tell you that the essential sensation of skiing, snowboarding and other “gravity sports” is freedom, and that’s exactly the experience Vail Vets wants to give to its participants. “We want to give them the ability and feeling of being the master of their own destiny,” says Rimel. With adaptive equipment, wounded veterans can fully and equally participate in these sports, side by side, with their families again.

Ski therapy has certainly proven its merits, if you ask program participants. “One of our wounded warriors said to me, ‘We aren’t here to focus on our disability,’ ” Jensen says. “ ‘We want to discover our new abilities.’ I loved that. We’re exposing them to things they wouldn’t otherwise try, and they’re making the most of it.”

Marine Sergeant Greg Edwards, a Vail Veterans Program participant, puts it this way: “When you have limbs torn from your body, skiing is one of those things that gets put on the top of the ‘I’ll never do that again list,’ ” he says. “Then when someone shows you that you can ski, and that you can ski as well as someone who has all their limbs, that gives you confidence. It also showed my wife and children that just because daddy is hurt doesn’t mean we can’t do things together.”

Photographer: Christopher Elam
Photographer: Jill Davidson
Photographer Kara Trimmer
Photographer: Michelle Hires
Photographer Rachel Donelson
Photographer: Cortney Talbott
Photographer: Melissa Arroyo
Photographer: Angela Wilkes
Photographer: Angela Wilkes
Photographer: Melissa Arroyo
Photographer: Amanda Dail
Photographer: Ashley Reherman
Photographer: Melissa Arroyo
Photographer: Jay Brittain
Photographer: Kim Kravitz
Photographer: Kristi Baumgarten
Photographer: Ryan Romero
Photographer: Ryan Romero
Photographer: Tara Ruby
© Education Images/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
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2/20Military Homecoming Pics
Caleb, Clarissa, and Colin, at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, race to welcome their dad, Duane, home from a long deployment overseas. [Photographer: Jill Davidson]
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9/20Military Homecoming Pics
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11/20Military Homecoming Pics
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18/20Military Homecoming Pics
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Take Part
Operation: Love ReUnited is a nonprofit, fully volunteer organization founded in 2006 by military wife and photographer Tonee Lawrence. The organization connects military families with professional photographers across the country who donate their time and talents to create memories for servicemen and -women who are getting ready to deploy, are currently deployed, or are coming home. Find a photographer near you, support Operation: Love ReUnited, or visit their blog...and be inspired, today. [Photographer: Tara Ruby]
20/20Military Homecoming Pics
More Ways to Help Out
Whatever your plans are for the holiday, take some time to reflect on what the day truly means, and even better, do something to help our troops and their families.
    Cause Celeb: Anna Kournikova
    by Monica Corcoran, TakePart.com

    Anna Kournikova Supports Our Troops—Again!
    The tennis star spoke to us from Germany, where she is currently on her fourth USO tour, kicking off the 2012 Military Families Campaign. From what’s in her suitcase to details on her personal mission, here she is in her own words.
    You have done four tours with the USO. You’ve been everywhere from Guam to Afghanistan. What do you pack?
    Well, I just do carry-on luggage 99.9 percent of the time because of the connecting flights and to keep it easy. It’s cargo pants, sneakers, boots. I just need to be warm and comfortable. It’s not about being fashionable. All that matters is that I smell clean!
    How did you first get involved with supporting the troops?
    I was in Washington, and I met the USO people and it was a perfect fit for me. I have been in America for 20 years. Troops have family with them, and I can really relate to the kids because I grew up away from home and traveling around the world. I left home when I was nine years old. The U.S. bases do a great job, but it is still hard for these kids to be bouncing around. I met a kid today in Germany who is seven years old and has lived on seven different bases all over the world. It’s incredible to hear their stories.
    What did you say to him?
    I let him know how much we appreciate what his parents do. Then I asked him if it is hard to make new friends or start new schools. He said, “It’s hard, but I am very good at it. I have been doing it my whole life!” I saw a girl today who I met three years ago on a base in Turkey. She was seven when I met her. She actually brought a Turkish newspaper with her that had a picture of us from my visit. That was completely crazy. I was so happy to see that she’s doing great.
    Your mission is motivating these military kids. How do you do that?
    My main issue is that kids should try things. I don’t expect them to be professional athletes, but I want them to find an activity that they feel passionate about. It’s so easy for them to be on computers all day. I tell them that sports can teach you about discipline and setting goals and accomplishing things. And I tell them they can use those skills later in life. I also try to encourage the elementary and middle-school kids to try and learn a language in whatever country they are living. I say they should communicate with the local kids and learn about a new culture. My mom made me do all those things. I was taking English, Spanish, French, and Italian lessons when I was a kid.
      Soldiers' Spouses Speak!
      They experience first-hand the challenges of having a loved one in the military. Share their insights on the best ways to support troops and their families. http://bit.ly/KONIB0
      Heartwarming Homecomings
      After seeing these photos it’s impossible not to appreciate the sacrifice our military men and women make on a daily basis. Check them out and share with the loved ones in your life. http://bit.ly/JLTlEB
      Help Soldiers Make Lasting Memories
      Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, Operation: Love ReUnited is a nonprofit that connects military families with professional photographers so they can capture their memories. Visit their blog and support this amazing cause!
      Tara Ruby, Operation: Love ReUnited
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