New STARS camp brings together vets of all ages and backgrounds
Steamboat Springs — On a busy bluebird day at Steamboat Ski Area, Bill Roy, 60, is showing off his best comedy skills.
He keeps it lighthearted when the jokes are directed at him and is quick to dish them back out.
Roy’s zest for life, his smile and his love of never taking anything too seriously mask unimaginable physical and emotional pain from 40 years of serving in the Army.
The Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran’s ski gear hides the most noticeable scars, like his above-the-knee amputation, or the multiple operations to reconnect dual breaks in his back as a result of being fired at overseas in 2005.
“After four operations I said, ‘Look, let me have a quality life,’” said Roy, sick of being hobbled by his war wounds. “’Cut it off, get me a prosthetic and let me have a normal life.’”
He said it was the best decision he’s ever made.
Roy and many others in his situation are getting more help than doctors or nurses can provide. Aided by Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, veterans are connecting on deeper levels.
STARS held its third annual STARS & Stripes Heroes camp two weeks ago. It’s a camp that connects disabled veterans with one another during their healing processes.
And this week, STARS launched a new camp, one very similar to STARS & Stripes Heroes but with a bit of a twist — one inspired by a conversation between an older Vietnam veteran and a younger Iraq veteran.
New camp just a part of the healing process
STARS Program Director Craig Kennedy knows that with a pair of veterans, no matter their age difference or war history, there are two sides to the story.
Simply sharing those stories can result in life-altering changes, too.
“This camp started by listening to a conversation between a Vietnam vet and an Iraq vet two and a half years ago,” Kennedy said. “It was very interesting hearing them talk about their sides of their stories. I felt like it was healing for both.”
For the younger vets, their more senior counterparts can share decades of knowledge on how they recovered in post-military life, despite very little or no government resources. For the older vets, the younger ones give them confidence that although it’s been years of healing — sometimes with little results — activities like the STARS & Stripes Heroes Mentor Camp are there to help with the process.
“These guys are military, and they’re all brothers,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think they see the age thing at all. It just brings to light a lot of different ways to heal.”
Like the original STARS & Stripes Heroes camp, the new six-day event brings in injured veterans from all war and conflict eras for camaraderie on the ski slopes. And as a mentorship program, participants are paired together in a safe environment to create dialogue.
“It may not be something they learned at the VA,” Kennedy said. “It’s not all cut and dry and by the book. These are real-life experiences being shared in order to help that healing process.”
The inaugural mentor camp, which wraps up Monday, brought in 22 veterans from coast to coast. Rob Powers from American 300 also invited Air Force veteran Eva Belanger to serve as a guest speaker to share her experiences in Iraq and how she’s fighting through her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Veterans participated in the camp at no cost. Lodging was provided by Wyndham Vacation Rentals and Trappeurs Crossing Resort, the largest housing sponsors for STARS’s annual camps.
Two years ago, STARS operated with only two camps, both in the winter. With the addition of the mentors camp, the organization is up to 12 with camps held monthly.
“It’s good they’re here having a good time, but on the other side of the coin, they get such a high then go home and have such a low,” Kennedy said. “We have to have it 12 months a year.”
Bill Roy’s new family
Over the past 10 to 20 years, adaptive sports have blossomed, giving military veterans like Roy a new lease on life.
“I was kind of a hermit for three and a half years, and this has been great,” Roy said, speaking from his sit-ski on the Christie Peak Express chairlift. “This has helped me get out daily.”
When he returns to his home in Southern California, he spreads the word about adaptive sports, programs like STARS and their benefits to veterans from all walks of life. He proudly proclaims he already has convinced 10 of his buddies to pick up adaptive skiing.
His healing isn’t complete — it may never be fully. He attends two different PTSD support programs — one is a day session designed for Vietnam veterans, and the other is held at night with Iraq-Afghanistan veterans.
“One of the things I do when I go back is tell people about this,” Roy said. “Just don’t give up.”
He hasn’t, even with a prosthetic leg and two cadaver disks, two titanium rods and eight screws in his back.
“Wars just tore me up,” Roy said. “This has helped me regain humanity. It’s a new family.”
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Time seemed to stop for Matthew Engle for a few seconds after he heard crunching metal last week while he was in downtown Steamboat Springs.