By Jennifer Dempsey -
When wounded war veterans arrive at Eagles Summit Ranch in Westcliffe to attend programs on healing and reintegration, Dave Roever understands their skepticism.
“These men and women are beat up pretty badly and aren’t buying into anything until I walk in,” said the 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. “Then they see all the disfigurement, all the damage I’ve been through and there is an instantaneous bond. They see I’ve been down the road before them and they trust me. My biggest advantage is my scars; they scream authenticity.”
Roever is considered 240 percent disabled by the Veterans Administration and 240 percent disabled by the American Medical Board. The loss of hand, ear, nose, mouth, eyelash — each has its own percentage. “Add them all up and you get way over 100 percent,” he explained. Roever was burned beyond recognition while serving on river patrol in Vietnam. The phosphorous hand grenade he was poised to throw exploded unexpectedly, blowing off his face, nose and right ear and blinding his right eye. His body was charred black from the waist up. His tongue had swollen to the point of suffocation, but the phosphorous burned a hole in his throat allowing him to breathe.
He was hospitalized for 14 months and doctors had all but given up hope when Roever survived. Recovering in a Japanese hospital, Roever asked the doctors for a mirror. Seeing his scarred, unrecognizable image, Roever thought he’d rather die than live with his disfigurement. But a missionary friend who had heard of Roever’s injuries arrived at the hospital and conducted a bedside prayer vigil. During the vigil, Roever fell asleep and in a dream saw himself as a preacher. He woke up with the decision to help others like himself.
A few months after his devastating injury and hospital recovery, Roever was on the road sharing his story of physical, emotional and spiritual recovery to audiences across the globe. Part preacher, part stand-up comedian, Roever infuses faith, humor and honesty in motivational presentations at schools, military bases, businesses and television talk shows.
Traveling 300 days a year, Roever provides professional and business development, military values training and family counseling for wounded veterans. He regularly visits wounded vets at hospitals in the United States, Europe and Iraq. In 1993, he established Mission Vietnam, a nongovernmental organization that establishes charitable initiatives in hospitals, orphanages and churches in Vietnam. In 2003, Roever was awarded a Purple Heart by the Navy and in 2005 he was granted an honorary doctorate degree from Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri.
Father of two, grandfather of four, Roever and his wife, Brenda, have been married for over 45 years.
In 2007, the Roevers opened Eagles Summit Ranch in Westcliffe. The ranch is for military leaders, soldiers “and those who have been seriously wounded in war and in need of emotional reconstruction,” Roever said.
It is a need that continues today. A study released in February by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that veteran suicide rates hit an all-time high in 2012. According to the study, veteran suicides outnumbered combat deaths, with 349 active duty military members taking their own lives last year.
“We must not repeat the mistakes made in the Vietnam era by nonintervention,” Roever said. “These warriors come back with tremendous post-traumatic stress, but it’s not a disorder. We don’t use the d-word. It’s not a disorder to come back traumatized by war. We’re human beings. We come back with scars from our experiences, but we have the ability to bounce back.”
Roever said it was passing by a Vietnam vet begging on the streets of Fargo, North Dakota, who inspired him to establish Eagles Summit Ranch.
“There was no reason for him to be begging,” he said. “He didn’t have a scar on his body, but obviously he had scars on his soul. He had bought into the attitude that some in our nation held toward Vietnam veterans. Seeing that man made me say, ‘Never again.’ I did not want the returning veterans of the war on terror today to be treated as those who had returned from Vietnam. I contacted a dear friend of mine, an Air Force general, and asked how I could best aid the wounded veterans coming home. He said, ‘Get the (veterans) out of the institutions and hospitals and into the wilderness. Break down their preconceived image of who they think they are.’”
In partnership with Colorado State University-Pueblo and Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Texas, Eagles Summit offers both faith- and non-faith based accredited courses, with the opportunity to work toward a college degree. Last year more than 70 veterans from Fort Carson participated in the “Winning With Integrity” course, which focused on public speaking and included wilderness therapy.
“The participants are taught that to overcome the hurt and wounds, they must talk about it,” Roever said. “They must get it out. They are taught how to share their stories and do so in the graduation ceremonies at the end of the week. Progress doesn’t happen right away, but I’ve never had a failure in a group. I start out with men and women who are extremely quiet but inquisitive. Amazing changes happen from day one to the end of the week. Dead eyes become alive with hope as they begin to share their stories.”
A devout Christian, Roever welcomes veterans of all religions, espousing a “triangular model of faith” in his training.
“One side is family, one side is friends and the bottom is faith because that’s what you build on,” he explained. “Faith is what you believe, it’s your core values. I happen to believe there is a God, but if you’re an atheist and believe in no God, well, that’s a strong form of faith. We have worked with an array of excellent young men and women with diverse faiths. We don’t discriminate. The only requirement is that they’ve experienced some kind of injury. We give them tools to excel. We want to get them back on their feet, even if they don’t have legs.
“Everything we do here is designed to break them out of the pattern of ‘poor me, help me Uncle Sam.’ All the whining stops,” he continued. “Here’s where a lot of them find out they have more than they thought they had. Some may share their stories in the future only very informally, while others may do public speaking as a career.”
Brian Fleming, a 28-year-old Army veteran, has become a fulltime writer and motivational speaker since attending an Eagles Summit program in 2007.
“I wouldn’t be who I am and doing what I do without Dave’s influence,” he said. “Dave taught me that what was once our greatest curse can become our greatest asset. What happens to you in life isn’t nearly as important as what you choose to do with what happens to you in life.”
In 2006, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to Fleming’s vehicle on a street in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“He was 3 feet away in a car and blew himself and his van into 3,000 pieces,” Fleming said. “It was 120 degrees when I woke up burned and bloody on the side of road in Kandahar. I had second-degree burns on my face and neck and third- degree burns on my hands.”
Fleming was recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio when Roever paid him a visit and invited him to the “Winning With Integrity” program at Eagles Summit.
“That program, in two weeks, did for me what the military and doctors couldn’t do in 14 months,” he said. “The program opened a new door in my life. It taught me to use what happened as an asset for my future, not only for myself but also for other people. It taught me how to use what I had from where I was. It gave me a map and tools and that little bit of spark that set off the wildfire in me.”
Six months later, Roever asked Fleming to attend a rally for returning vets.
“I showed up and he put me on stage in front of 3,000 people,” Fleming said. “Afterward this lady came up and said, ‘If you can get through that, I can get through what I am going through.’ When I began speaking I saw that other people’s lives could change for the better and it began to heal me. I didn’t know that was going to happen but Dave knew that. The greatest investment you’ll ever make is the investment in other people.”
Fleming is also an instructor at Eagles Summit, using his personal experiences to mentor other vets through business ventures, marriage and family problems and post traumatic stress issues. His books Redeployed and Never the Same are available on his website blownupguy.com.
Another Eagles Summit attendee, 29-year-old Iraq war veteran J.R. Martinez, has built a successful acting and public speaking career following his stay at the ranch. Burned on over 40 percent of his body, Martinez today divides his time acting on the soap opera “All My Children” and speaking about his war experience to corporations, veterans groups and schools. In 2011, Martinez was the winner on “Dancing with the Stars” and was featured on the cover of People magazine.
“I liked him immediately,” Roever recalled. “He was so eager. He had never ridden a horse in his life, but while staying at Eagles Summit Ranch, he rode 15 miles on the Rainbow Trail. We came off that mountain and he was so lit up you couldn’t get him to shut up.”
Martinez’ life was changed at this Colorado ranch. Hundreds of others have had their lives changed and their souls healed, thanks to one vet who made a decision to use what had come from his injuries to help others.
Jennifer Dempsey is a freelance writer and actress based in Salida. She is also founder of the Salida Circus (www.thesalidacircus.com). When she is not acting, writing or stilt-walking she is looking after her two-year old son Henry.