Helping them heal: Wounded warriors welcomed to events in Big Sky, Bozeman

Lone Peak Lookout

by Jolene Keller

After being injured in battle, many soldiers who return home have the difficult task of rehabilitating. They must adapt to their new lives, now with physical and emotional wounds that can sometimes inhibit their ability to do the things they used to, not to mention the ability to take on new activities they may have hoped to learn.

Several years ago Bozeman resident Linda Kelly started Operation Never Forgotten, a program that gives soldiers with physical and invisible wounds opportunities to pursue new passions right here in southwest Montana.

This year the organization contacted existing rebound programs through hospitals across the country about the country, and found 48 soldiers and from across the country and their families to participate in Operation SAS, Sports, Afield and Stream Adventures for Warriors with Physical and Invisible Wounds.

The program was held Jan. 7 through 11 in the Bozeman and Big Sky areas.

A community banquet held at Big Sky Resort on Friday, Jan. 7 kicked off the adventure. It was a way to connect the public with the soldier guests and welcome the soldiers to the community.

Sen. Jon Tester made a special guest appearance at the event, thanking the soldiers and their families for their service.

The following is an excerpt from his address:

"I want to say a special thanks to the families of America's wounded warriors here this weekend. We all know the sacrifices you make every day. Thank you for being a valuable part of these warriors' lives. It often takes a team to recover — and to rebuild. When American troops are wounded in action — whether their injuries are visible or invisible — they leave a part of themselves on the battlefield. Fighting for us. I know nothing can ever replace that sacrifice. And we will always, always be grateful for it. This weekend, you'll get to spend time on the slopes and in the valleys and among the forests around us. Anyone who spends time in these mountains will tell you that you can find yourself again here. It will never replace what was lost, but it will help in its own way. Whether you ski, climb, hike, fish, hunt or simply take in the scenery, the opportunities here are endless."

Throughout the rest of the week the soldiers participated in activities they may have never imagined, including dog sledding at Moonlight Basin, ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon, snow coaching through Yellowstone National Park with their service dogs included, and more. They also delved into the Big Sky cuisine at Whiskey Jacks, Lone Mountain Ranch and Buck's T4.

"This was such an incredible moment for all of them," said Linda Kelly, program coordinator. "It made a change in their lives and gave them new hope for their abilities. They left different. All with smiles on their faces and new friends. The new relationships they gained were just as important."

No matter what their disability, soldiers were able to tackle new activities with rigor. One woman who was blinded during battle didn't hesitate during the ice climbing exercise, she just dug right in and scaled the ice wall.

Another solder who lost part of his arm even assisted another solder who had locked his keys in his car- he used his prosthetic hook to get into the vehicle and save the day.

Even "Sweet Pete," a solder who had been paralyzed on one side joined in the ice climbing fun. He was carried to the trailhead of the ice wall by Tim Medvetz, a motivational speaker that attended Friday's banquet. Pete eventually ended up climbing the wall as well.

"Everyone was cheering," said Kelly.

This was the first year offering the program, but due to its success Kelly plans to hold the event annually.

"Everybody's ready to jump onboard next year," Kelly said. "Soldiers that participated this year are already offering to volunteer next year. It was a lot of work but worth every bit."