DENVER — Life can be a challenge for America's wounded warriors.
Adapting to the loss of a limb, eyesight or paralysis can be physically and emotionally taxing.
When Bob DeMonbrun saw injured soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and spending long periods of time at places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he decided they needed a place to relax and rejuvenate with their families, in stress-free environments.
That was the genesis for Vacations for Warriors, a nonprofit committed to giving wounded heroes and their families a brief respite from the challenges of daily life.
"Some of our soldiers have undergone over 50 surgeries," he said.
DeMonbrun remembers how servicemen were treated during the Vietnam era, back when he was in the service.
"They were not honored," he said, "and I thought that was a real travesty, a real dark time in our nation's history."
He said he started Vacations for Warriors in 2014, as an outgrowth of his work in the military ministry at Greenwood Community Church.
"I wanted to focus on sending wounded soldiers and their families, those primarily wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, on really fabulous vacations to places like Hawaii, Ireland, Disney World, Caribbean cruises, just all kinds of wonderful vacations," he said.
Golden Vet's Journey
Afghanistan War Vet Tyler Wilson, his wife, Crystal, and their then 5 month old son, Matthew, experienced one of those "dream" vacations, when the nonprofit sent them to Hawaii.
"I didn't realize how much we needed it," the veteran from Golden said.
Wilson was just 20 years old when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2005.
"I was shot four times," he said. "The first bullet paralyzed me."
He said he went through rehab and then struggled to adapt to his new reality, but didn't get much support.
"I was in a place where I didn't want to be," he said. "I put on some weight. Growing up in Colorado, I lived an active lifestyle, but when I was wounded, I figured that part of my life was over with."
Wilson said he found a new purpose eight years later when he discovered adaptive sports.
That's when he met Crystal.
They fell in love and got married.
Crystal said she admired Tyler's ability to push himself, and to help other injured vets do the same.
"He was able to push them to do it sooner than he was able to do it," she said.
The couple faced challenges their first year together.
Crystal said they went through in vitro fertilization to conceive, and had to fight for medical coverage.
She said it was a fight that was mentally and physically exhausting.
"Adding on the stress of being a newly married couple, with the paralysis, and having a new son, we didn't get the newlywed period," she said.
Easing the Stress
Vacations for Warriors helped ease that stress.
The couple said they chose Hawaii as their dream vacation, because she missed the ocean, and he'd never been.
The trip was a celebration of their one year anniversary.
Crystal said she surprised Tyler with a chance to renew their vows on the beach.
Pointing toward one of their vacation photos, Tyler told Denver7, "You can see the look on Matthew's face. He was about as surprised as I was, but with the waves crashing just a few feet away, it was the perfect setting for a vow renewal. It was just an amazing time all around."
Crystal told Denver7 that one of her favorite memories was seeing father and son in the ocean.
"He had his 5-month old son in front of him on a surfboard thanks to the Kauai Fire Department," she said.
The couple said they are still experiencing the benefits of that vacation.
"We discovered the true meaning of Aloha," Crystal said. "Being able to spend time together helped us refocus on the previous year and how to make the rest of our life and marriage better."
The Golden mom added, "Being able to sit in those moments and reflect has not stopped. We've been able to continue to live a life full of Aloha."
An added bonus for Tyler was that the trip gave him a chance to reconnect with his first Sergeant, who is now stationed in Hawaii.
"I hadn't seen him since I was injured in 2005," Tyler said. "He's the main reason I'm still (alive.)
He described how the medevac chopper couldn't land during the gun battle, because the LZ (Landing Zone) was "too hot."
"(The Sergeant) got on the radio and essentially told them you have to land now, or you're not going to be picking up wounded, you'll be doing a hero mission," Tyler said.
Qualifications for Vacations
The vacations provided by Vacations for Warriors, it's sponsors and supporters, are for U.S. servicemen and women who have been severely wounded or injured during military service.
Criteria include an 80 to 100% or greater combined disability rating, with a single physical disability rating of 30% or greater, for injuries or wounds sustained during combat in one of the following specific categories:
If you'd like to nominate a warrior click here.
DeMonbrun said Sheraton Hotels in Kauai, Maui, Waikiki, and on the big Island of Hawaii, donate ocean front suites to some of the soldiers.
"American Airlines gives us a million air miles a year to pay for some of the flights," he added.
He said other companies and individuals contribute what they can.
DeMonbrun said the nonprofit raised over $30,000 during a recent fundraiser at the Littleton Elks Lodge.
"But we could use more money," he added. "We have about 25 soldiers on our waiting list, waiting to go on vacation. We'll send them once we get the funds."
If you'd like to donate to the nonprofit to help fund Vacations for Warriors, click here.
"At the end of the year," DeMonbrun said, "we will have sent 40 wounded soldiers and their families on these vacations."