Everyone has his or her proverbial hill to climb; some people's are just a bit higher than others. Such is the case for U.S. disabled veterans who return home after serving with new battles to fight. For two decades, we have helped those warriors take to the slopes of Aspen, Colorado, for the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a week-long event established by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to give soldiers with serious injuries a place to experience skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling, sled hockey and snowshoeing. As Host Level sponsors this year, we flew more than 500 veterans, ranging in age from 22 to 82 years old, to the event. Among them was Army veteran Tina Lavallee, a first-time attendee.
"It was beautiful — just amazing," Mrs. Lavallee said afterwards. "Everyone was welcoming and encouraging; it was such a humbling experience."
Mrs. Lavallee, who served in the Gulf War, suffered a brain injury that, at times, left her feeling isolated. "I just sat at home, depressed because I didn't have a purpose," she said. "I can't drive and I live in the country, so I couldn't even go down to the corner store. But when my daughter-in-law found out about the winter sports rehab and encouraged me to give it a try, that all changed."
Along with veterans, sponsors and volunteers, it takes a decent sized brigade of United employees from 95 stations and hubs, including three international locations, to arrange transportation for the participants, handle the large number of luggage and wheelchairs and work as ambassadors, meeting and greeting the veterans at our airports. Reservation Sales and Service Representatives Linda Roush and Renee Buttigieg booked and ticketed those traveling to the clinic.
"We start blocking seats almost a year in advance as soon as our inventory goes live to ensure that we have enough space for everyone," said Linda, who has worked the event for the past nine years. "The challenge is that we can only fit a limited number of wheelchairs on each aircraft. This year we moved more than 130 wheelchairs, so it took a lot of planning."
Nearly 200 veterans and volunteers connected through Denver, where Airport Operations Supervisor Stephen Bernstein and his team met them. "We ensured their safe movement on and off the aircraft while our ramp team carefully loaded their wheelchairs," he said. "Before boarding their flight, the veterans visited with each other and had refreshments. It was great to see their enthusiasm over the event."
Some of our employees, Linda included, even travel to Aspen to support our operations on the ground there. "It's a life-changing week," Linda said, "and I'm so proud that United helps sponsor it. I go and work each year because I love seeing the smiles on their faces. We all come together as a team to make it happen — we all want to make the week special for the veterans."
While the week is designed to challenge physical limitations, the bonds that attendees forge with fellow veterans are just as important, as Mrs. Lavallee can attest. "I've met some very good friends who are going through the same things that I am," she said. "One person helps the other – I might give someone a hand putting on their gloves, and they'll bend down and pick something up for me, which I can't do. It's amazing the things that you do for each other without thinking."