By Jennifer Dempsey
When wounded war veterans arrive at Eagles Summit Ranch in Westcliffe, 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.”
Considered 240% disabled by the Veterans Administration (“the loss of hand, ear, nose, mouth, eyelash – each thing has it’s own percentage – add them all up and you get way over 100%,” 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, 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.
Hospitalized for fourteen months, doctors had all but given up hope but Roever survived. Recovering in a Japanese hospital, Roever asked the doctors for a mirror. Upon seeing his seared, 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 visits wounded vets at hospitals in the U.S., Europe and Iraq, and in 1993 began mission work in Vietnam.
In 2007, Roever and his wife Brenda opened Eagles Summit Ranch in Westcliffe for military leaders, soldiers “and those who have been seriously wounded in war and are in need of emotional reconstruction,” Roever said. “We must not repeat the mistakes made in the Vietnam era by non-intervention. 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’s impressive resume of professional and personal achievements is testament to that. He is founder, chairman and president of two non-profit corporations. In 1993, he founded Mission Vietnam, a non-governmental organization that establishes charitable initiatives in hospitals, orphanages and churches in the Vietnam.
In 2003, he was awarded a Purple Heart by the Navy, and in 2005 was granted an honorary doctorate degree from Central Bible College in Springfield, MO. Father of two, grandfather of four, Roever and his wife Brenda have been married for over 45 years.
Roever said he was inspired to establish the mentoring center at Eagles Summit in 2003 after passing by a Vietnam veteran who was begging on the streets of Fargo, North Dakota.
“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 towards Vietnam veterans. Seeing that man made me say, ‘never again.’ I did not want the returning veterans of the war on terror today 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 are.’”
In partnership with Colorado State University-Pueblo and Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Texas, the Center offers both faith and non-faith based accredited courses, with the opportunity to work toward a college degree.
Approximately 72 veterans from Fort Carson will be participating in the 2012 course. The program, entitled “Winning with Integrity,” focuses on public speaking and includes some wilderness adventures.
“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 very 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.”
He continued: “Everything we do here is designed to break them out of the pattern of ‘poor me, help me Uncle Sam.’ All the whining stops. 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 develop public speaking as a career.”
28-year-old Iraq veteran JR Martinez, has built a successful acting and public speaking career following his stay at Eagles Summit. Burned on over 40% 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. Last September, Martinez was the winner on “Dancing with the Stars” and was featured on the cover of People Magazine.
Roever said. “I liked him immediately. He was so eager. He had never ridden a horse in his life, but while staying at Eagle 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.”
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.”
To sponsor a veteran or to make a tax-deductible donation to the Eagles Summit Ranch, mail a check payable to “Roever Foundation” to P. O. Box 136130, Ft. Worth TX 76136, designating for Eagles Summit Ranch – COLORADO. To donate by credit card, call 817-238-2000; to donate online, visit: www.DaveRoever.org and choose “Eagles Summit Ranch Colorado.”
Jennifer Dempsey is director of Salida Circus and a freelance writer.