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Injured Veterans Find Salvation On Sierra Ski Slopes

MAMMOTH LAKES (KPIX 5) -- A new National Wounded Warriors Center is being built near a prominent California ski resort to help military veterans with the fight against their injuries, which can be physically and emotionally overwhelming.

In recent years, the nonprofit program Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra has invited veterans to participate in special camps at Mammoth Ski Area. The camps cater to disabled veterans who are physically, cognitively or even emotionally disabled. Volunteers fit wheelchairs with skis and make other modifications to help veterans get down the mountain.

"The camp takes folks out to participate in sports and that helps them get past their mental and physical reservations about sports, and about the world in general," said Kathy Copeland, executive director of Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra.

"You look out at this mountain and all of this snow, it's an equalizer," Copeland said. "It turns someone who's usually in a wheelchair having to follow pavement into this free eagle soaring on the slopes."

In recent years, the camp has become so popular with returning war veterans that there is now a long waiting list for veterans to participate in the program.

So, the plan is to build a new program just for vets: the National Wounded Warriors Center. The town of Mammoth Lakes has already donated a million dollar plot of land next to Cerro Coso Community College.

They have secured $7 million in donations and they need about $18 million more.

"Let's face it, this country is really good about recruiting, training, putting men and women in the arena of war," Copeland explained. "They bring them back, give them new legs and then it sort of stops. And that's where we step up to the plate."

Retired Air Force Master Sergeant Shanon "Shay" Hampton was on a combat mission in Iraq when an explosive went off, killing several men around him. He sustained brain, neck and back injuries as well as PTSD. For a while, he says his outlook was bleak.

"You build up these walls and you're in such a dark place that you feel like there is no outlet," Hampton said. "You feel cornered and believe there's no place to go."

Hampton became a participant and is now a mentor in the program he credits with giving him hope again.

"It actually saved my life," Hampton said.

The waiting list is also long for volunteers who want to give back to the men and women who sacrificed for their country, whether their wounds happened in combat or not, to remind them that no matter how broken their bodies, their spirits are uncrushable.

"So many people come out here to help you feel better," said Damon Moore, an injured U.S. Marine. "They help you recover and realize you're still normal and life can be as good as it was before."

Interested parties can learn more about the special Wounded Warriors program at the organization's website.

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