Wounded Warrior Ronald Mayfield at a rock climbing outing last month in June Lake.
Wounded Warriors Project serves those who’ve served our country
By Katie Vane
Kathy Copeland, Executive Director of Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra’s Wounded Warrior Project, had something to say last month to the warriors climbing six tough routes at June Lake: “The view’s great from here!” She was referring not to the stunning setting, just above Silver Lake off the June Lake Loop, but to the view we on the ground had of the better sides of the wounded warriors climbing above. You might expect a rehabilitation program for disabled Army, Navy, and Marine Corp. veterans to be a sober affair. But this is Mammoth, and this is the Wounded Warrior Project.
Started by a group of veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project works to provide aid for severely injured service members. The WWP paired with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, a non-profit organization founded in 2000, to offer all-expense paid, week-long rehabilitation programs in winter and summer. Activities include skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and kayaking, cycling, fishing and climbing in the summer.
Most members of the program are still at some stage of recovery, and in care. They come from Southern California and all over the country. They have visual impairments, amputations, spinal chord injuries, and other neuromuscular and orthopedic conditions. They’re also funny, friendly … and totally irreverent.
In Mammoth, these warriors are stationed at McGee Creek. They participate in activities with the assistance of Summer Program Manager Laurel Martin, Training Manager Mark Spieler, Instructor and Trainer Maggie Palchak, a host of volunteers, and organizations like Sierra Mountain Guides, who led the climbing last Thursday.
Annie Trujillo of Sierra Mountain Guides watched the warriors climb on Thursday with admiration and respect. “I’ve got a torn ACL,” she said. “I remember I was thinking, ‘Dude, I can’t climb for six months?’ But this really puts things in perspective.”
Some of the warriors clearly got a kick out of climbing, in spite of, or because of, the challenge. Take, for example, Jeff Henson, an Army demolitions expert for 22 years, who lost his vision in an explosion in Iraq in 2004. After seven eye surgeries, he’s still blind in his right eye, but has partial vision in his left. He came all the way from Alabama with his grandson, Micaiah, and his seeing eye dog, Chauncey. This was his first time in Mammoth, and his first time climbing in 15 years, but Henson climbed to the top of one of six routes using only his sense of touch and verbal commands from below.
Then there’s Mark Mix, now a volunteer with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. He recently moved to Mammoth from Ohio after falling in love with the Eastern Sierra his first time out with WWP a year ago. A self described former “couch potato,” he was a Navy Seabee Combat Engineer. Deployed to the Philippines during the 2001 hostage crisis, he was caught on a bridge when it was detonated, shattering all the vertebrae in his neck. But he recovered and fought hard to stay in the service, and even made it to Iraq. There he served for 33 days before a mortar lobbed into a building left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“I was never into sports before,” Mix said. Now he’s traveled all over the country and the world, biking in the Sierra Challenge and skiing in Chile. A shoulder injury kept him from climbing this year, but last year he gave it a try. “It’s hard,” he said, “but it’s fulfilling.”
And Ronald Mayfield, a Navy Chief for 18 years in Virginia Beach, who served in the first Gulf War, and later in Bosnia for six months, is truly a testimony to the will to survive. He was shot in the head in a hunting accident while on leave and spent three weeks in a coma. He was in hospital a full year after that, and couldn’t speak for four years. He went to speech therapy five times a week in order to learn how to speak again. Once bound to a wheelchair and breathing through a tube, now, after years of physical therapy, Ron climbed all the way to the top of one of the routes at June Lake. “The Wounded Warrior Project is wonderful,” he said afterward. “The volunteers are incredible.”
While these warriors took to climbing, some did not. Marine Ricky Giden claimed, “I’ll jump out of an airplane any day, but I will not do this.” Either way, by lunchtime there were smiles all around, and as climbers descended and went off belay, compliments and encouragement were traded between warriors.
Sue Morning, who stopped by just after lunch to snap some photos and offer support, put it best. Her nephew is a wounded warrior, and she had nothing but praise to offer the program. “We’ve met such incredible people through the Wounded Warrior Project,” Morning said. “And we’ve seen people we never thought would smile just beam.”