An injured veteran learns to ski in Whitefish, Mont., on Feb. 2. Whitefish is one of several communities supporting the Wounded Warrior Project in giving back to injured troops recovering from war injuries. (AP)
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WHITEFISH, Mont. — The quirky mascot of this Montana town's world famous winter carnival — a furred abominable snowman on a motorbike — served as honor guard for eight wounded warriors and their families parading past cheering crowds as part of the festival finale.
Every few steps, someone from the crowd would reach over the parade tape to shake a service member's hand and express gratitude.
The troops' starring role is a unique version of a growing trend in which communities across America are developing programs to give back to those who served.
This one was done in conjunction with the charity Wounded Warrior Project, which says more and more towns and cities are reaching out to sponsor the visits of wounded troops and their families. Last year, there were 30 community-sponsored events, said http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/">Wounded Warrior Project spokesman Pete Cataldo. This year that number has doubled to 60, he said.
The Whitefish program was the brainchild of Steve Shea, a local resident and West Point graduate. Four years ago, he coaxed local business owners into taking part that first year, with the help of local veterans groups and disability advocates. Shea found troops in need who could participated through WWP.
There's very little the Florida-based charity has to coordinate, says WWP's Heather Timins, who accompanied the families to Whitefish.
"It's organized almost completely by the community," Timins said — from dinner at a lavish home overlooking a mountainside to ski instructors who volunteer their days off to teach.
"You walk everywhere, and they not only thank the warriors for their service but treat them almost like royalty," she said.
The troops and their families stayed at a mountain lodge and received one-on-one instruction at Whitefish's ski area. Some use "sit skis," while others use prosthetics strapped to snowboards. The uncrowded slopes that draw millionaires to the out-of-the-way resort in the shadow of Glacier National Park are perfect for those learning how to adapt old skills to new limbs, or learning a sport from scratch.
The weak economy has meant fewer visitors to Whitefish in recent years and tough times for many local businesses. But the Warrior program here has grown each year, with more businesses taking part and a small army of residents helping organize and driving the group from event to event. Many residents support the program financially, writing checks that range from $25 to $25,000.
Whitefish has sponsored roughly two dozen troops and their families at the winter event and more than 50 caregivers in a separate summer event during the past four years. The town has raised more than a quarter million dollars, Shea said.
For the troops and their families, it's often the first time they've taken a vacation since their injury — and the first chance to escape the daily drumbeat of "what next" that rules their now-changed lives: Whether to stay in uniform, or leave for a job outside, whether to have another medical procedure.
"It's a break from everything we're used to," said soldier Billy of the respite from months of surgery and rehab. A Green Beret who can only be identified by his first name, Billy lost much of his right leg to a mine in Afghanistan.
"It was our first time in a long time spending an evening on our own," said his wife Jennifer, enthusing about a local couple who volunteered to babysit the couple's two young sons so they could have an après-ski dinner alone. "To have a little time off from the boys, especially when you've been with them all day, has been great."
On his first day out, Billy wowed his instructors, catching air off a jump on a snowboard, his prosthetic leg uncovered to the knee.
"Being able to work with a good coach and really tuning the leg to knowing where I'm comfortable with it now, I know how to get to the top of the mountain," he said. "And now my sons know I can catch them if they start acting up."
During the winter carnival, the troops joined the town in its annual fundraising "penguin plunge" into a frozen lake, all part of the offbeat Montana pageant that is part Mardi Gras, part homecoming parade, drawing visitors from states away.
For soldier Dustin Riblett, it was a welcome embrace from a country he felt rejected by when the military told him he could no longer serve because of his traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
"When they retired me, it felt like the world didn't want me," Riblett said after a day of learning to ski.
Whitefish, he said, made him feel that "there are still people out there that care, and that we're not forgotten."