Home of the free, because of the brave: 3 Grand County veterans tell their story
Grand County veteran Danny Puffpaff was born in Colden, N.Y., and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970.
Prior to being drafted Puffpaff spent several years as a professional skier but his days on the snow were cut short after he was sent to the steamy jungles of Vietnam to fight for his country. Puffpaff was an infantryman and reached the rank of E-5, Sergeant, while serving. At approximately 8 p.m. on May 25 1971 Puffpaff was on patrol with his fellow soldiers when he stepped on a landmine in the dark of night.
Puffpaff lost his left leg due to the explosive force of the landmine and his right leg was heavily damaged below the knee. He was sent to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center for rehabilitation but despite the loss of one leg and damage to the other Puffpaff went on to return to the world of skiing. He spent 16 years on the US Ski Team, competed in three paralympics and four world championships.
Puffpaff, who lives in Fraser, also spent 20 years working as a ski coach with the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park Resort and has been inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame and the National Ski Hall of Fame.
Walter Mathis spent over two decades serving in the U.S. Army before moving to the high country. The Jacksonville, Fla., native first enlisted in May 1996 and spent the first 12 years of his military career working as both a combat medic and a lab tech. He was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and spent 18 hours helping recover remains from the terror attack and was among the first members of the Army on the ground in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
Mathis did three combat tours in Afghanistan during his time with the Army. His first tour, in 2003, saw Mathis stationed at Bagram Air Base. During the aughts Mathis attended the military’s interservice Physician Assistant program, obtained his masters degree and his PAs license, and was commissioned as an officer. He would go on to obtain the rank of Captain and serve as Chief Medical Officer at Camp Stanley in Korea before returning to Afghanistan twice more, from 2010 to 2011 and from 2012 to 2013.
During his last two deployments to Afghanistan Mathis was based out of Kandahar and Camp Nathan Smith but traveled extensively throughout the country, filling in as a medical officer as needed.
Mathis said it is the comradery of his fellow soldiers and the esprit de corps formed in the military that most stands out in his mind from his time in service.
“When I was overseas it always felt like I was part of something bigger than myself,” Mathis said. “That is why I stayed in so long.”
Local veteran CarrieAnn Grayson spent seven years in the U.S. Army. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Grayson joined the Army in 2001 and was commissioned as an officer in the signal corps. She was deployed to Iraq in 2003 along with the first surge of American troops and spent most of her deployment in and around the Baghdad area, bouncing around various Logistics Support Areas in the days before large scale military bases were established.
She obtained the rank of Captain before being medically discharged. Grayson visited Grand County in 2012 to participate in a Project Sanctuary event and fell in love with the area. She went on to quit her job as a middle school technology teacher and sold her home in San Antonio to move to Middle Park for a new job.
Grayson now works as Marketing Coordinator for Project Sanctuary, overseeing the website, blogs and social media presence of the local veteran’s service nonprofit. Grayson is an advocate for veterans issues and has a special passion for issues related to veterans with disabilities.
Over a decade after serving in a war zone Grayson said the connection she and other veterans feel to each other remains strong.
“I can run into someone I was stationed with and it’s like we’ve never been apart,” Grayson said. “You can call on them still at any time, and they will come running to your side.”
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Grand Concerts is hosting its first live event in 17 months featuring the Boston Brass on Friday at the Headwaters Pavilion in Winter Park.