For many visitors to the Flathead Valley, a trip to Whitefish Mountain Resort for a day of skiing is the highlight of their winter vacation.
For eight veterans and their families who took part in the Wounded Warriors program last week, hitting the slopes was just the icing on the cake.
Greeted by the Patriot Guard of Montana when they arrived in the Flathead, the veterans and their families were given the royal treatment for their visit, including a “knighting” ceremony at the Iron Horse clubhouse by the Whitefish Winter Carnival royalty.
“I’m now a ‘sir,’ so you better make way for the knight,” Staff Sgt. Caleb Perkins said. Perkins, who is serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment, said this is his first time skiing, but he hopes it won’t be his last.
“I really enjoy it. At first it was really difficult, but then I got used to it and now I’m a professional. I’ll be giving lessons later,” he joked. “Actually, the coach said I had made huge improvements, so I guess I’m a fast learner. I’ll definitely be taking trips back here. This area is awesome and the people are great.”
Perkins wasn’t the only one of the group who had never been skiing or snowboarding before. Each member of the Wounded Warriors was teamed with a “ski buddy” volunteer and an instructor certified in adaptive skiing. Skiing took place over two days, with the first day dedicated to instruction and finding creative ways to get down the mountain.
“Tuesday it took us two hours to get to the point of having the boots on and ready to board,” Scott Schroeder said. Both of Schroeder’s legs were amputated above the knee after he was injured in an improvised explosive device attack.
“They had to figure out the right angle for the boots so I wasn’t doing a faceplant all the time,” Schroeder said, laughing. “But I very much enjoy snowboarding now.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort as well as DREAM Adaptive Recreation in Whitefish provided special adaptive skiing and snowboarding equipment for anyone who needed it, but some experimentation was still needed.
“I had to use a different set of legs,” Schroeder said. “I have a pair with joints at the knee and a pair that are solid. We had to use the solid legs and wrap them with foam and duct-tape to keep the boots in place.”
Schroeder and his wife, Laura, have enjoyed their time on the mountain so much they’re already making plans to return.
“I’m having a blast,” Laura said. “Our son, who’s 17, couldn’t come, but he would absolutely love it here, so we’re going to try and come back with all of us together.”
While Laura and several of the other family members spent their time at the resort, several other spouses were treated to a day at the spa.
“We’ve been doing this in Whitefish for five years now, but this is the first time we’ve sent anyone to the spa,” Jan Richardson said. “It’s evolving, and it’s really great to be able to treat them, too.” Richardson and her husband Kim have been volunteers with Wounded Warriors since the soldiers began visiting the Flathead.
“It’s really rewarding to be able to volunteer for something like this,” Kim said. “You hear them say ‘last night I dreamed about skiing, not about the war,’ and that’s huge.”
Although the main event of the trip was skiing, each of the participants took something different away.
“The first day they took us up in the groomer to the very top of the mountain, and you can see everything,” Perkins said. “The whole valley, the lake; it was probably the one thing I’ll remember the most.”
More than the skiing and pampering, the people of the Flathead Valley made the biggest impression with the soldiers and their families.
“This community is awesome and so welcoming,” Laura said. “The very first day, people met us at the airport who had to drive a hundred miles or more just to greet us. You can strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and it feels natural. Sometimes you go to a new place and it takes a while to feel comfortable, but that’s not the case here at all. The community here is the one thing I’ll remember the most about this visit.”
Reporter Melissa Walther may be reached at 758-4474 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.