Mountain healing: Wounded warriors find support, purpose at Granby Ranch
David Vobora and Roy Tuscany are two energetic, athletic guys with matching gray rings on the pointer fingers of their right hands.
Vobora and Tuscany have loud voices and easygoing attitudes. They tell lots of jokes, but the rings on their saluting hands highlight a serious issue. These rings are a reminder of the veterans who commit suicide every day, a number that averaged 17.6 in 2018 according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs. That’s roughly 1.5 times the average of the civilian population.
Sitting at Granby Ranch, surrounded by a happy buzz of spring break skiers, the tragedy of military suicides can take you aback. When Vobora and Tuscany talk about suicide, they don’t shrink away. When they bring up mental health and personal challenges, there is no stigma.
“(It’s a) hard topic to talk about; all the more reason we need to talk about it,” Vobora said.
• Mind Springs Health 24/7 crisis line: 888-207-4004
• Colorado crisis line: 1-844-493-TALK (8355) or text TALK to 38255
• National suicide prevention line: 800-273-8255
• Veterans crisis line: 1-800-273-8255, press 1
That perspective is the crux of Military to the Mountains, which expanded into Colorado for the first time ever this year and brought 10 wounded warriors to Granby Ranch at the end of March. The program involves a nine-week Texas bootcamp culminating with a trip to the mountains for veterans who have sustained combat-related critical injuries.
The effort is put on by Tuscany’s High Fives Foundation in partnership with Vobora’s Adaptive Training Foundation. Both nonprofits focus on experiences for adaptive athletes, but Military to the Mountains is special.
Tuscany used the mountain to recover from his own life-altering experience after sustaining an injury that left his lower body paralyzed. Vobora, a former NFL linebacker who became Mr. Irrelevant 2008 by being the last drafted player in the league, uses his work to empower people with physical impairments.
The free program has become a place for wounded warriors to build themselves up emotionally and physically by discovering a passion for skiing and for life.
Asking for help
About a month ago, a wounded warrior called up Vobora saying he was having suicidal thoughts. The veteran told Vobora that he didn’t trust himself.
Vobora picked the man up at 1 a.m. and brought him home to ensure the man’s safety. It was a heartfelt act in the moment, and it might have been the pick up the man needed.
“As long as we do that and do that consistently, they’re going to be willing to open their mouths when something is going on,” Vobora said. “That’s what will save the life.”
Tuscany said the veteran has sparked a new energy for life since that time and skied 20,000 vertical feet in one day after only learning how to ski the day before.
“I guarantee right now he’s probably in line,” Tuscany added, turning around to check the Quick Draw Express.
That same veteran has also been asking what it would take for him to compete as a professional adaptive athlete or even work as a ski patroller.
Beyond stopping that man from taking his life, the other nine veterans now know what he’s gone through. The program emphasizes being open and honest about uncomfortable topics because doing so helps other people know they’re not alone.
It proves they can ask for help.
Spending nine weeks together training in Dallas builds a tightknit community for these vets, with words like “tribe” or “church” coming to mind. A lot of veterans struggle with the adjustment to civilian life, and those who sustain life-altering injuries from their service face additional challenges.
“There’s a lot of great organizations that will take people skiing,” Vobora said. “But living life with them for nine weeks and earning their trust, that’s the moments.”
Creating a goal and showing all the possibilities that remain open to them gives the veterans a renewed purpose. Tuscany explained that the program wants to show each individual that they’re “superstars” in life.
“They had 10 weeks to see that and now they’ve got a lifetime to prove it,” Tuscany said.
The most important part of the program is based in meditation and mindfulness. Before and after every workout, the group gets together to do 15 minutes of collective breathing.
For many in the program, that is initially met with some reluctance.
“Imagine this Marine sees me coming in, some long-haired dude, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to meditate today,’” Vobora said. “He’s like, ‘OK hippie.’”
That Marine could deadlift 530 pounds, but Vobora wouldn’t let him lift heavy weights for the first month of the training camp. The Marine wasn’t pleased.
Vobora likened the program to football, where coaches put players under stressful situations in practice to better prepare for the game. He said the gym tries to pull veterans outside their comfort zone in a controlled environment to prepare them for when times get hard.
“I think with these athletes, with trauma or whatever has occurred, they find themselves where they’re not grounded in the present moment,” Vobora said. “We’re intentionally looking to put them in times where they have to get upset and we see how they react. That gives you the next coaching cue where eventually they have this self-discovery and they leave with a bunch of tools.”
The program doesn’t end after 10 weeks. Beyond equipping these vets with new tools to deal with emotions and a renewed sense of ability, these people become friends. They have each others’ phone numbers and care about each others’ lives.
“For 10 veterans to know that they have someone like that, that’s something that no one can touch,” Tuscany said.
The program found its way to Granby Ranch this year thanks to the ski resort’s new management team, led by General Manager Jace Wirth and his dad, Andy Wirth. Andy Wirth worked with the High Fives Foundation when Military to the Mountains first began.
The duo believes fiercely in the program and all it has to offer. According to Jace Wirth, the week was a special experience for the whole Granby Ranch team, which got to have a hand in helping these veterans find a new outlook on life.
“It’s created pride for them to work here,” Wirth said.
Bringing the program to the ski resort was one of the first projects he initiated as general manager. Perhaps it was the scenery, but having the program at Granby Ranch just made sense to Wirth.
“Mountains are powerful places,” he said. “Some folks might ask why would a program like this be in Granby. Our team and this community is so much about family and about community … People are drawn to this place for that reason.”
For Middle Park High School teacher CarrieAnn Mathis, the visit had a personal connection. Mathis was asked to help coach the veterans new to the mountain because she herself was a service member.
She said it was wonderful to spend time with fellow veterans, something she hadn’t done in a while. By the end of the week, her riders were doing jumps in the terrain park.
“It’s making them feel the adrenaline rush, what makes them feel alive again,” Mathis said. “Because when we get out of the military we kind of lose that. What I got out of it was giving them the joy that I’ve found in skiing.”
Tuscany said everyone involved in the program felt at home in Grand County.
“The people at Granby Ranch this week have treated every veteran, every member of my staff, his staff, every single person, not just as VIPs — but like family,” Tuscany said.
When asked if the program would be returning to Granby Ranch next year, Wirth made it clear they were more than welcome. Tuscany’s answer was an adamant yes.
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The Grand County Coroner’s Office identified the man who died in an industrial accident Monday at Colorado Timber Resources as Pierce Hopkins, 24, of Kremmling.