Wounded Warriors find fellowship on the slopes


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"I don't know how I can ski with just my head and my arms, but I was doing what everyone else was doing on the hill," said Erik Burmeister, 39, who was paralyzed from the chest down after an accident at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was training to be a medic in the Army Special Forces. "It was exhilarating."

Mr. Burmeister was one of 11 veterans and their families who were treated to four days of skiing at the Seven Springs resort last week, courtesy of the resort and the Wounded Warrior Patrol. All have wounds, some physical, some psychological.

"I came up here to find a piece of the puzzle -- to talk to others about their experience with PTSD," said William Stephens, 43, of Harrisburg, who served five combat tours during his 20 years in the Army.

PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, is estimated to affect about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the National Center for PTSD.

The veterans at Seven Springs and their loved ones had to make adjustments after their injuries. Some were more successful than others.

"My wife's a psych nurse," Mr. Stephens said. "She treats me like a patient."

It was hard at first to adjust to the role of caregiver "because I was so independent," said Angela Hall, 26, of Elizabethtown. Her husband, former Marine Chase "Tripod" Hall, 25, was wounded by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2008.

"It was the largest blast ever recorded -- well over two tons of explosive," Mr. Hall said. He is still convalescing.

He uses a wheelchair, but unlike Mr. Burmeister, he can walk some and is seeing gradual improvement.

"The docs say I'm an odd kind of miracle," he said.

The IED put an end to Mr. Hall's plans to make a career of the Marine Corps. When he recovers, he wants to do the kind of thing that Chris Raup is doing.

"My goal in life is to continue to serve my brothers," Mr. Hall said.

Mr. Raup, 44, a financial planner in Carlisle, founded the Wounded Warrior Patrol three years ago. He retired recently as a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

"After I came home from Iraq in 2006, I wanted to find a way to continue to give back to the guys I served with," Mr. Raup said. "I saw a need for recreational therapy."

He talked over his desire with friends who served with him on the volunteer ski patrol at Round Top near Harrisburg and got an enthusiastic response. In late 2010, Mr. Raup and several others attended the Wounded Warrior Ski Week sponsored by the Breckenridge ski resort in Colorado and were inspired.

There was only one place back home where they could duplicate what they saw there, Mr. Raup said. "Seven Springs is the closest thing in Pennsylvania to a Western ski resort."

So Mr. Raup arranged a meeting with Seven Springs president Bob Nutting, and nervously prepared his pitch. The meeting was anti-climactic.

"I was ready to fire off this awesome presentation, but I was just on my first slide when they interrupted me," he recalled. " 'We're sold,' Mr. Nutting said. 'What can we do to help?' "

Plenty, it turned out. Seven Springs provided free hotel rooms for four nights, with breakfast and dinner, lift tickets, skis and snowboards, and provided discounts at the spa and the gift shop. Adaptive skis for those vets like Mr. Burmeister who required them were provided by Three Rivers Adaptive Sports.

"The hospitality here is amazing," Mr. Stephens said. "The manager came to our room with a bag of gifts for the family."

Lt. Col. Don Cherry, an Army force planner stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., went with Mr. Raup to Colorado two years ago, but was unable to attend the Wounded Warrior Patrol's inaugural event at Seven Springs last winter.

"We were blown away by what we saw at Breckenridge," Lt. Col. Cherry said. "But the program there wasn't nearly this good."

The vets who expressed gratitude for what Seven Springs provided them had things backward, Mr. Nutting said in brief remarks.

"It's really humbling for me to welcome all of you, and to be able to say 'thank you,' " he said.

In addition to what the resort provided, the Wounded Warrior Patrol gave the vets debit cards to pay for travel to and from Seven Springs, lunch each day, and some incidentals from the gift shop. This made it possible for some to have their first real family vacation since returning from the war.

"This is our first time skiing," said Joel Benjamin, 31, of Ephrata, a former Marine who attended with his wife and two children.

"It's fun. You can go fast," said daughter Kayla, 6.

The children also were treated to bowling and a scavenger hunt, the wives to a spa day.

More important to the vets than what they were given was how and by whom it was given.

"I've never felt so much caring for what I have done," Chase Hall said. "To see so many people who really genuinely care really touched me."

"I really believe in the therapeutic benefit," Erik Burmeister said. "I know a guy who was a hermit for seven years after he was paralyzed. A large part of the therapy is having people treat you as valuable and desirable."

It was therapeutic also to share their stories with other vets, said Charlie Dunn, 65, of Harrisburg, who was wounded as a Navy Seabee in Vietnam.

"We had to introduce ourselves the first night," he said. "It was emotional for me to get up and talk [about his war experiences]. Nobody ever did anything like this for Vietnam vets."

If you are a wounded warrior who'd like to participate, or you know of one who would benefit from this program, send an email to http://www.woundedwarriorpatrol.org/aboutus.html, or a letter to Wounded Warrior Patrol, 20 Westminster Dr., Carlisle, PA 17013, and ask for an application form for next year's outing, which Mr. Raup and Mr. Nutting say will be the biggest yet. Or you can telephone (717) 576-2269 and leave a message.

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Jack Kelly: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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