On the Slopes

02.17.14

Homefront Veterans: Skiing With Wounded Warriors

On the California slopes of Mammoth Mountain a group of locals have created something remarkable: a weekend of skiing and snow sports for wounded veterans and their families. John Kael Weston was there.

As our troops return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan they are thanked for their service in airports, at bars, within restaurants, and at the White House. After these well-meaning moments they are left alone to hibernate with their own devastation. Our storylines about them have become clichés. Vets: Unhealed. Isolated. Unbalanced. Dangerous. Suicidal.

It seems only our heroic SEALs and other Special Operations Forces have barely escaped such easy labeling. But then the stories of war heroes sell, especially the near-mythic ones who always seem to get the bad guys. What really happened “over there” is a lot more complicated than all of that.

Coming home represents an enduring challenge for veterans, but dysfunction and tragedy are not their only fate. Granted, the Super Bowl “surprise” homecoming ad from Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser beer, featuring a golly-gee Army lieutenant, does not reflect the experience of very many veterans I know. If only.

I recently participated in a different kind of “welcome home” event for troops. A ski and snowboard week held in the jagged Sierra Nevada mountain range. Marine Staff Sergeant Dean Sanchez, in charge of USMC Wounded Warriors living in the Rocky Mountain region, joined me from Denver. We covered hundreds of miles in half-a-day, reaching California’s highest peaks after passing near Las Vegas, Area 51, and a number of “bunny ranches” along the desolate route. The grayish yellow desert terrain reminded us of districts in northern Helmand province, but without the Taliban, purple poppy fields, and roadside bombs.

Earlier that morning, resort employees “saluted” the veterans with their ski poles held aloft, forming a 30-meter long inverted “V” archway—reminiscent of crossed Marine swords—for them and their service dogs.

The roughly 50 people we joined for the week did not comprise the usual outdoor recreation enthusiasts at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. Marines on skis and snowboards, several with leashed canine companions at their sides. This late-January group, a majority out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, had served in America’s two longest wars, and almost all were wounded in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Doctors categorized their Purple Heart status in clinical terms: L leg limb salvage; TBI (traumatic brain injury) balance issues; L leg gunshot wound; paralysis of left shoulder; shrapnel wounds; PTS/Anxiety; cerebral inflammatory disorder; bullet in lung; C1 fracture.

Skiing With Wounded Warriors
From left, Corporal Jorge Salazar getting ready to hit the slopes; Ski pole "salute" by Mammoth employees for Lance and his dog, Augie. (John Kael Weston)

Below is the unscripted story of two Wounded Warrior Marines I met in California. It is also the story of an American ski town, home to one dynamo-of-a-lady and her volunteer squad, all making a difference in the lives of numerous Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Mammoth locals did not wait to be asked by a president or a Veterans Affairs Administration official to act. Rather, they knew they could do something to help and then did.

It seems the farther West one gets from Washington, D.C., not only do the geographic vistas improve, but so too does the can-do attitude among citizens. Those who show they care about our returning military service members and, in this case, happen to be fortunate enough to live in a stunning 9,000-foot setting.

Jorge and His Mom

California native Corporal Jorge Elizio Salazar lost both legs in Kajaki, Afghanistan in August 2012, when a buried bomb detonated beneath him. “I remember everything,” said the father of two. “I’ve never been on snow before. This is the best kind of therapy, not like a vacation.” A member of the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Olympics Team, he swims the 50-meter free, 100-meter free, and 50-meter back. He plays on the volleyball and basketball teams, and just started surfing.

What amazed Jorge most about the ski week in Mammoth? “How quickly the organizers turned the idea into action and all the planning behind it. The town and resort are amazing.” He said he learned from his mother “who herself has been through a lot” how to stay positive despite any unexpected challenges.

Leroy and His Dog

Sergeant Leroy Johnston, a Houston native, served five deployments, three in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. A sniper shot him in the upper left arm, at sunrise, just outside Fallujah. His service dog named Apache, an Australian cattle dog, always stays close and “loves the snow.” What makes the Mammoth event so special, he said, is “how they invite our families too.” Wives and partners need such activities as well, Leroy added. “Getting on the mountain like this helps us and helps our home life.” Texas natives, the week marked the first time skiing for him and his wife.

Leroy said people should know that for many wounded veterans after war, “No matter the limits we can live a full life.”

Kathy and the Mammoth Team

Kathy Copeland, an energetic Vermont native, arrived in Mammoth in the early 1970s and never left. A whirl of activity on and off the slopes, Kathy heads the local chapter of Disabled Sports, Eastern Sierra region. With several colleagues and a town full of volunteers, they have built the Wounded Warrior skiing event into an annual celebration of alpine therapy—and fun. Orange parka-clad instructors escorted Marines up and down the mountainside. One New Zealand-born senior mountain guide remarked during a conversation with me on a ski lift, “I’ve helped train Olympian Tommy Moe. What I see with these veterans is the same kind of determination. It’s in their eyes and attitude.”

At a luncheon with Vietnam and Korean War veterans and others from the community, the CEO of Mammoth Resort, Rusty Gregory, noted how the scrappy ski town defined boom-and-bust resiliency. As he spoke, a blizzard—the first time since early December—funneled big flakes outside massive lodge windows. The Great Snow Gods, finally, rewarding us all. He reminded everyone of the only-in-America bootstraps-to-ski straps story of Mammoth’s founder, Dave McCoy. He is 98 years old and still lives with his 92-year-old wife, Roma, in a scenic big valley not far away. All the week’s participants, Gregory added, could ski free for the rest of their lives. First Marine Division Commanding General Larry Nicholson and Wounded Warrior Regimental Commander Willy Buhl (not bad skiers themselves) commented about the quiet strength and bravery they see among veterans back home.

Earlier that morning, resort employees “saluted” the veterans with their ski poles held aloft, forming a 30-meter long inverted “V” archway—reminiscent of crossed Marine swords—for them and their service dogs. Author Dean Koontz and the family of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz generously fund a program called “Canine Companions for Independence” (www.cci.org). It provides free-of-charge specially trained dogs. An ever-serene black lab named Augie, for example, demonstrated his skills in picking up a dropped iPhone for his wheelchair-bound companion, Lance.

Mammoth’s “Operation Mountain Freedom” marked its eighth year in 2014, and is set to grow even bigger next year. Kathy Copeland and the town will soon launch a fundraising effort to build a National Wounded Warrior Center for veterans and their families adjacent to Cerro Coso Community College. Once completed, it will be open year-round and a much-needed home base for further educational opportunities and more tailored programs. In June, another group of Wounded Warriors will be hiking, climbing, and cycling the Sierras. Thanked for their service—and pushing on, resilient.

*

Leaving Mammoth Dean and I drove to San Diego. There we met with a Marine drill instructor at the Marine Corp Recruiting Depot (MCRD), i.e., boot camp for all would-be Marines west of the Mississippi River. The almost century-old facility and grounds have been designated a national historic site. Recruits train amid the Spanish Colonial Revival-style structures colored golden in America’s first-among-equals Golden State.

It was graduation on an unusually gray day for Company F when we arrived. Hundreds of friends and family members gathered at the ceremony to cheer on the newest members of the “The Few, The Proud” and always loyal tribe. Near an internal road named Iwo Jima, dozens of bags with a camouflage pattern crowded the pavement, perfectly aligned, end-to-end, as if part of a G.I. Joe Lego set. Marines made their way to the ones marked with their names. Once bags were slung across shoulders, they departed to enjoy a short leave period before reporting back to duty.

These enlisted grunts will be deployed at sea on ships, or assigned guard duty at U.S. Embassies, but they will not fighting in Fallujah’s streets or maneuvering across bomb-laden poppy fields in Afghanistan.

It’s about time. They were in kindergarten on September 11, 2001.