Pagosa welcomes Wounded Warriors

A crowd gathered outside the new building at The Springs Resort Hotel Monday morning, to welcome 14 American war heroes visiting Pagosa Springs.

The soldiers, including three women and 11 men, are participants in the Wounded Warrior Project. Angel Flight West, a volunteer pilot organization, provided them free roundtrip air transportation to the area.

As a nation at war, the United States is currently served by approximately 2.3 million men and women in uniform. Sadly, some are lost on distant battlefields, while many others return home, having suffered serious injury. For the wounded, life will never be the same.

That’s why, in 2002, Massachusetts native John Melia and family founded the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP).

Melia, himself, was wounded in 1992 when the Marine Corps helicopter he occupied suddenly exploded and crashed into the seas off Somalia. Having suffered burns and other serious injuries, he eventually returned home with little more than a hospital gown on his back. By 1995, he medically retired from active duty.

Seven years later, as wounded troops were returning home from Afghanistan, Melia, his wife and two daughters began delivering backpacks filled with toiletries, clothing items, music CDs and other creature comforts to soldiers in various hospitals. As interest and participation grew among other war veterans, the program expanded to include injured troops returning from Iraq.

Today, while the backpack program continues, the WWP also assists soldiers with physical, emotional and spiritual wounds sustained in today’s wars. In partnership with Veterans of Foreign Wars, the project aids wounded warriors in regaining strength and confidence, while rebuilding their lives. Too, its Track program offers college preparatory classes and training in veteran’s advocacy, as well as custom services to assist in developing career skills.

To further promote healing and relieve combat stress, the WWP’s Project Odyssey affords warriors an all-expenses-paid, five-day retreat that combines real outdoor adventure with family and peer support. It is that program which brought retired U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Norberto “Norbie” Lara, his fiancee, Priscilla Galindo, 13 other wounded warriors and their supporters to town earlier this week.

In a Monday afternoon interview, Norbie told The SUN that he was wounded in Iraq one early morning in June 2004, when a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the armor-plating of a Humvee he was riding in. The explosion ripped off his right arm — and that of a female lieutenant sitting behind him. The two were the only ones injured in the blast.

Shortly after, as Norbie lay gravely wounded in a German hospital, doctors feared he might not survive and summoned his entire family to bid farewell. Remaining in a medically induced coma for two months, he held on, but lost between 60 and 70 pounds. Once transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., he received extensive care and slowly recovered.

Today, Norbie awaits fitting for a prosthesis, while working as the West Coast Area Outreach Coordinator for the WWP. He attends school at a local community college in Visalia, Calif., and will eventually pursue a bachelor of science in social services at Fresno State. He hopes to work in the homeless program with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He and Priscilla intend to marry Sept. 19.

Since returning home, Norbie has learned to ski at Snowmass and has taken up golf. His Pagosa plans included horseback riding, rafting and hot-air ballooning.

“It’s really cool having an organization like WWP to support you,” Norbie said, “but it’s even better to have an entire community like Pagosa Springs open itself up and welcome you. I’d never heard of Pagosa Springs before now, but I’ll never forget it.”

As provided by Retired U.S. Navy Capt. and Stevens Field airport manager Bill McKown, the list of warriors visiting Pagosa include: Norbie, Army Reserve Spc. Barbara Newstrom, Army Maj. Rick Vattuone, Army Sgt. Carlos Martineznegrete, retired Army Sgt. Chris Speer, Army Sgt. Constance Bell, Navy Seaman Manuel “Manny” Del Rio, Army Maj. Arturo “Art” Murguia, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Alex Guzman, Marine Corps Sgt. Tim Kerrigan, Navy Airman Anthony Andrew Swetala, Army Spc. Zaneta Adams, Army Staff Sgt. Todd C. Rohr and Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Roy. Adams and Rohr are from Michigan and New Hampshire respectively, while the rest are from California.

Upon their arrival, local law enforcement, a regional motorcycle club known as the Patriot Guard Riders, local military veterans and several private citizens escorted the warriors from Stevens Field to the hotel courtyard for a formal welcoming ceremony. Capt. McKown greeted attendees and ordered presentation of the colors.

Coupled with patriotic music performed by inspirational vocalist and guitar player Russ Murphy, various speakers paid tribute to the community’s distinguished guests, while commending their personal sacrifices and commitment to service.

As keynote speaker, Air Force Brig. Gen. Anthony Rock touched on the amazing diversity within our American society, while explaining the present size and quality of our all-volunteer military force. He briefly described technological improvements that allow a smaller, more efficient military and diplomatic complex to protect American interests at home and abroad, and emphasized the need for able young men and women to always step forward in honor and service to country.

Since Monday’s moving oratories, the visiting troops have partaken in a variety of outdoor pursuits, including barbecue, rafting, horseback riding, flyfishing, hot-air ballooning, fine dining, spa soaking and more. All lodging and activities were donated by participating vendors and, in partnership with the WWP, the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce hosted the program.

According to Chamber events coordinator Autumn Daily, the altruistic events will wind down tomorrow, as the warriors attend a free 5 p.m. concert in Town Park.

“Norbie” Lara