Wounded Warriors ‘Whole Again’

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Vernon Vanderhoef sat against a wall, peered out the picture window and strapped on his boots. Outside skiers and snowboarders slid down the slopes, much like he was about to do, even though he hadn’t skied in years.

The chores of everyday life have prevented him from skiing as much as he once did, before he was married, had kids and a job – before he suffered a fall during a firefight in Iraq. Internal scars still linger, both physically and mentally.

“You’re not the same person after (war),” he said. “You’re a different person.”

Vanderhoef has injuries to his neck, shoulder and lower back and suffers from the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. But he can enjoy, if only for a few days, the comfort of being around veterans who share similar experiences, thanks to the Wounded Warriors Project. The nonprofit, based in Florida, was established to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans adjust to civilian life, stay connected to fellow veterans and enjoy temporary escapes, like a weekend on a Montana ranch or fly fishing in New York. Last week, Vanderhoef and seven other veterans, with the help of instructors and family members, took to the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Frank Kearney, a retired three-star U.S. Army general and volunteer for the project, said activities such as skiing or snowboarding can show an injured veteran that they can still challenge themselves.

“I think it’s a confidence booster to come back and do stuff they did before they were hurt,” he said. “It makes them whole again.”

Recently retired from the Army after 35 years, Kearney purchased a home on Big Mountain. Upon moving, he first heard about the Wounded Warrior Project’s ski trips to Whitefish. He has volunteered at the organization for the last two years.

“For me, this is part of my responsibility,” he said. “I had the honor of commanding America’s sons and daughters, sending them into harm’s way, and now it’s my duty to help them out after.”

Vanderhoef, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1980 and did two tours in Iraq, said some soldiers isolate themselves upon returning home from combat and have a hard time adjusting to life away from their fellow soldiers’ sides.

“I get to hang out with my brothers in arms and support them,” he said. “Veterans, when they are around other veterans, are a lot more comfortable.”

In that environment, Vanderhoef planned on embracing the sport he loved as a kid. So did Staff Sgt.Billy Costello, of North Carolina, who lost his right leg in Afghanistan four months ago when he stepped on an improvised explosive device on patrol. With a prosthetic leg, he was heading up the slopes with his wife and two sons. Costello joked that he’s trying to break records for a speedy recovery.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get out and do what we used to do,” he said. “It helps you realize that life isn’t over with an injury – it’s a speed bump, but life is full of them.”

Last Thursday morning, Costello slowly snowboarded down a slope, an instructor holding him close and helping him adjust to his new prosthetic leg. Then the instructor let go and Costello cruised to the bottom of the hill.

A few moments later, Costello was back in line with his two young boys following close behind, heading to the top of the hill again.