We recently had the opportunity to give a Poppy’s Wish Heroes Vacation to two military families, whose lives have been forever changed due to combat deployment and injury.
Sergeant Jason deployed to Cuba, Iraq, and Korea during his 15 years in the U.S. Army. During one tour, he injured his right shoulder, and, after a botched surgery, suffers from chronic numbness and limited use of his arm.
He lives with his wife, April, and their four children in Junction City, Kansas. Although the Army didn’t medically retire him, because of his disability, Jason works as a building inspector at Fort Riley.
Jason’s family had never taken a vacation together and felt fortunate to be chosen by Freedom Alliance for a Poppy’s Wish Heroes Vacation, as well as the Presents for Patriots program back in December.
Sergeant Mark deployed to Iraq twice as a Marine and once more with the Army. His story is similar to Jason’s. When a grenade launcher fell on him during operations in Iraq, Mark lost much of the use of his arms after medical treatment devised to correct the injuries. He is still undergoing treatment and corrective surgeries for the nerve damage.
Mark was previously selected for one of our Alaskan fishing expeditions, and this July, he and his wife, Olga, came with their three children to Colorado to join us and Jason’s family for the eight-day Heroes Vacation.
And what a vacation it was! We settled the families in their own well-stocked cabins in the beautiful, green valley of Beulah, Colorado, which features meadows and mountain views. From here, there were many potential day trips and adventures for our guests to sample.
On the first day, Jason and his family hiked a nearby trail that led to some secluded natural water slides. “This vacation couldn’t have started off better,” April said, as she and her husband and kids repeatedly careened down the falls and played in the chilly pools.
Their next stop was Bishop Castle, one man’s (Jim Bishop’s) incredible fairytale vision of stone and iron work. It includes towering turrets and lofty bridges—even crowned by a fire-breathing steel dragon. The two oldest kids, Emma and Dalton, climbed to the top of a 16-story turret to be greeted by miles and miles of mountain peaks.
The next day, both families traveled to Royal Gorge, a canyon 1,300-feet deep and a mile wide, that boasts one of the highest suspension bridges in the world. The kids rode across the canyon in a gondola, while the adults used the Cloudscraper Zip Line—even Mark, who is afraid of heights! He couldn’t believe he’d soared over the Arkansas River at 1,200 feet.
Then it was on to the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which was the highlight of the trip for Mark’s young son Lucas and Jason’s son Jackson. They boarded a locomotive with glass-topped coaches for a scenic heritage ride, which took them under the canyon bridge they had walked earlier in the day and through gorgeous country along the river.
The fourth day was Jason’s eldest son’s birthday, and to celebrate Dalton turning 15, we arranged an outing with Play Dirty ATV Tours, which donated an 11-mile journey through rocky Colorado terrain. Even the children were given their own miniature ATVs for the day, resulting in whoops of delight.
From there, Dalton’s family took him to the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, while Mark took his son, Mark Jr., for target practice at a local shooting range.
The next day, Jason and his family visited Colorado Gators reptile park, where nearly every animal was once someone’s pet. There they petted turtles and held baby alligators. They also stopped by Zapata Falls and sledded at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the highest sand dunes in North America.
The sixth day featured a picnic lunch in the Garden of the Gods. Jason’s family afterwards headed for the Helen Hunt Falls, and Mark and his family visited the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, the 1,000-year-old home of the ancient Anasazi Native Americans.
Their Freedom Alliance escort brought oxygen along when Mark and Olga and the kids hiked to the summit of Pikes Peak. At 14,000 feet high, and surrounded by sheer cliffs and thousand-feet drops, Olga was inclined to use a little more oxygen. All other gasping was an expression of awe.
On the last full day in Colorado, volunteers worked together to provide a horseback trail ride for the two military families. April dubbed it “the perfect mix of awesome and scary” as the party ascended a steep trail through Pueblo Mountain Park to be rewarded with amazing views.
Mark tends to avoid desert settings, because it reminds him of Iraq, but he entertained good thoughts and happy feelings while on the horse ride.
He awoke early on departure day and took Mark Jr. fishing at Lake DeWeese, sighting elk and catching loads of fish. Over the week, there were several special times of bonding for Mark and his son, and lots of firsts for them, as well.
April called this vacation “a dream come true.”
“[We are] on our way home from basically the best week our family has ever experienced!” she and Jason posted on Facebook. “Met some new friends—and you know how it goes in the military—our friends become long-distance family. Thanks for the good times…”
Both families agreed that Freedom Alliance didn’t feel like an organization, but rather like old family friends.
Mark let us know that his relationship with Freedom Alliance was the reason he had been able to seek help and start healing after his time in Iraq left him with horrible guilt and constant nightmares. He said we were the only ones who had reached out to him and gave him the ability to trust people again.
“It’s Freedom Alliance that has made me realize that I can be Mark,” he said, “that with each trip, each time I get to talk to other veterans, a little piece of me returns.”
We hope that both Jason and Mark have returned to their normal lives a little more whole—and a little more themselves—than when they left.