Skiing with STARS: Semper Fi & America’s Fund02/08/2023 07:00AM ● By Casey Hopkins
Steamboat Springs, CO - At first glance, you’d never guess I’m a veteran. I’ve got long, curly hair and I’m rarely clean shaven. I’m usually blasting Phish or Umphrey’s McGee in my car. I voted for Bernie Sanders, smoke my fair share of weed and maintain a general loathing towards Texas and Florida. In fact, unless you asked me about my history (or looked at my veteran license plate, which I acquired mainly to try and avoid getting pulled over) you’d have no idea I spent over six years following orders and traveling the world in the name of Uncle Sam.
But the truth of the matter is as much as I try to maintain distance from my former Navy life, I do miss those days. Days where I stood on the decks of huge warships, watching them link up, side-by-side to transfer over food and supplies in 20-foot seas with the utmost precision, days where I spent countless hours flying in Seahawk helicopters, days when I watched $100 million jets take off from the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf. And while I’ve had enough extraordinary experiences to last multiple lifetimes, it’s truly the people I miss the most. It's been over two years since I voluntarily relinquished my membership to Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club, and since then, I haven’t had too much contact with many of my former shipmates.
Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the Steamboat gondola with about six veterans I’d never met before, though there was one thing we all had one thing in common: we’re scarred with invisible wounds – wounds that are mental, debilitating; and will take a lifetime to heal - if we’re lucky.
These veterans were a part of a bigger group of about 20 people who are all members of Semper Fi & America’s Fund, a non-profit formed in 2003 that is “dedicated to providing immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to our nation’s critically wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans and military families.”
All hailing from or around Colorado and living with some sort of disability, these men and women came to town for five days and were hosted at the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) Ranch. During their trip, they each received a private lesson with a STARS ski instructor along with a few days of skiing at the resort, plus a nice long soak at Old Town Hot Springs the night before hitting Buffalo Pass with Steamboat Powdercats for some pristine powder turns.
“There are a lot of [disabled veteran] programs that already exist out there, but the ski world is kind of a new field,” says Mac Finley, a Navy veteran himself, as well as the STARS Groups and Programs Assistant. “It’s a great outlet. We’re dealing with a lot of former extreme athletes or people who do enjoy that extreme lifestyle and got to live some of that life in the service.”
But on a deeper level, the veterans were able to enjoy their time with peers in a non-traditional group setting – a welcomed reprieve from the unwelcoming “back in my day” attitude found in the smokey VFW halls of yesteryear.
“As veterans, we don’t necessarily have to have the same experiences, but we have that comradery,” says Chad Prichard, an 11-year Army veteran, who specialized in the Arabic language as a part of a civil affairs team, deploying to Iraq in 2003 and Africa in 2005.
“It’s not been an easy road for me since I got out of the military,” Prichard continues. “I went from trauma to trauma to trauma and I never really processed Iraq. I haven’t been able to keep a job for more than a year or two since the day I got out. Either my PTSD has gotten in the way, or my depression has gotten in the way.”
But then in 2017, after attending a different veteran organizations event, Prichard was referred to Semper Fi & America’s Fund. Prichard says that he’s tried other veteran programs, but many of them tend to be ‘one-off,’ contrasting the Semper Fi and America’s Fund model of ‘constant contact.’
“The coolest thing about this program is that they’re not just one-and-done,” says Prichard. “They’re not going to help you just one time with one adventure over a week. My case manager has helped me all the way through college, through financial hardships. They’ve helped me with my service dog. They’ve helped me get things for school. They’ve given me tools so that I didn’t fall off the radar.”
In addition to community-building trips, financial support and education assistance, Semper Fi & America’s Fund also has programs to help with accessible housing assistance, caregiver support, disaster relief as well as sponsoring athletic clubs and athletes who are dedicated to giving back to the disabled veteran community.
“They’re going to do the best they can to get you as much help as you can, no matter where you are, whether it’s through one program or another,” Prichard says. Then they bring me to events like this, where they teach us sport, allowing us to be around other guys that get it, and you make friends. Not only do we get the help, but we get a community. Community is the most important part.”
“What we were able to provide them made it all worth it,” Finley says. “After your service, things get different. Things are weird. The civilian life isn’t what you remember it to be. It gives them another outlet, another resource. To be a part of that group, and myself being a veteran, it was a fantastic experience all the way through.”
To say that the time I was able to spend with these men and women was rewarding would be a sincere understatement. They helped remind me that I am not my disabilities, and though I may not wear the uniform anymore, I’ll always have a community to fall back on, no matter what. I am grateful and I am humbled.
To learn more about Semper Fi & America’s Fund, visit www.thefund.org
To learn more about STARS, visit www.steamboatstars.com
To learn more about Steamboat Powdercats, visit: www.steamboatpowdercats.com