David Myers used to be an avid skier, spending his days carving tracks at Vail Mountain in Colorado before he joined the Navy a week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
He served for five years in the military, three of which were spent on multiple stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. The time left the Peoria resident with what are commonly called invisible wounds -- a traumatic brain injury caused by a truck crash and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It has been eight years since Myers got to spend a full day on the slopes, so when he had the opportunity to participate in Arizona Snowbowl’s inaugural Wounded Warrior Weekend, he jumped on it.
The trip reignited a passion, Myers said.
“I used to live to ski,” he said.
A collaboration between the ski resort and the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, the three-day event from Jan. 14 to 16 hosted a total of 24 veterans, about eight per day. The veterans, most of whom live in the Phoenix area, were provided lift tickets, equipment rentals and one-on-one adaptive lessons.
The goal was to say thank you to veterans for their sacrifice and service to their country.
Finding a way to help
The Wounded Warrior Project operates programs across the country for veterans and service members who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound during military service on or after September 11, 2001.
It was Alex Davenport, who coordinates the adaptive program at Snowbowl’s Ski and Ride School, who reached out to the national charity to organize the Wounded Warrior Weekend. Davenport is a Marine Corps veteran himself.
“Veterans are near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I am fortunate to be in the position where I can give back to these veterans.”
Many of the participants had never skied or snowboarded before and needed beginner lessons.
Efrin Vargas, a 24-year-old who joined the Marine Corps in 2009, was one of the first-timers.
He said the lessons were clear and thorough and was impressed by Snowbowl’s instructors.
Being among other veterans also made it a welcoming environment, he said. Vargas is originally from Winslow and, while in the Corps, helped with disaster relief after the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan before doing a tour in Afghanistan’s Musa Qala District. He left the Marine Corps and returned to Arizona after his back was injured in Afghanistan.
“You just feel more comfortable with talking with other vets,” Vargas said. “You know, especially with a wounded warrior, that they’ve been through something almost just as you have. They’ve been through it and they understand you. If something happens or if you’re a little jittery they know that’s OK.”
The civilian population doesn’t really understand those reactions, he said.
That’s how Myers felt as well.
“Having the opportunity and knowing you're going to be there with buddies and people who understand what we're all going through, it makes it a lot more of a comfortable environment to go out there and enjoy yourself,” he said.
Despite his love for the sport, over the past 10 years Myers has only skied once, and only for a few hours, he said.
“With PTSD and TBI you kind of shut yourself off from things you like to do and your passion. A lot of it is isolation and getting out there in a public place is not something we would normally do on our own,” he said.
None of the veterans at the Wounded Warrior Weekend required special equipment to be able to ski or snowboard, Davenport said. Instead, many, like Myers, suffer from invisible wounds like traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder and required instructors who could tailor the lessons to their needs, Davenport said.
Myers’ brain injury, for example, causes him coordination difficulties, migraines and memory or focus issues.
Each instructor provided adaptive lessons for about two hours in the morning, joined the veterans for lunch, and then spent the afternoon skiing or snowboarding with them.
Arizona Snowbowl is trying to organize a second Wounded Warrior Weekend before the end of the ski season, but with a few changes, Davenport said. For instance, instead of having a different small group of veterans every day, he wants to have one larger group attend all three days and stay at one of Snowbowl’s partner hotels in Flagstaff. They haven’t set a date yet.
“What we found was the veterans left Snowbowl wanting more,” he said. “They didn’t want to quit.”
The Wounded Warrior Weekend is one of many programs the Wounded Warrior Project offers in Arizona. Since October 2014, the charity has hosted 378 events for qualifying veterans and their families in Arizona. Myers, for example, has participated in family movie nights and received tickets to attend college football games, all donated at no cost to him or his family.
Wounded Warrior Project opened its office in Phoenix in 2012 and 12 employees now work there, Wounded Warrior spokesman Rob Louis wrote in an email. The organization partners with other nonprofit veterans charities, small businesses and large national corporations to help put on its programs, Louis wrote.
“Building new friendships, challenging themselves to try something new or return to something they enjoyed prior to wound, injury, or illness, and engaging with the community at large has proven valuable to all involved,” he wrote.