Air Force vet Shay Hampton presses forward after devastating injury suffered in Iraq
Shay Hampton turned fifty last week.
For most people, fifty is a milestone among milestones, another number along the way to oblivion.
But for an Air Force veteran of many tours of many dangerous places, fifty is almost … incomprehensible.
Sheet: Did you ever think you’d see fifty?
Hampton: No, uh, c’mon. Never. Not in a million … no way … um. Just. No.
Hampton, who spoke at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra’s annual Operation Mountain Freedom event held in Mammoth in January, is a profile in courage and perseverance.
He was injured in 2012 in Iraq. While he couldn’t go into much detail about the event, what he could say is that he and others in his unit were exposed to chemical weapons, and in Hampton’s case, spinal and brain surgeries were required to save his life.
The short-term impact was intense. The 6’2”, 221-pound combat veteran was wheelchair-bound. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t feed himself. At one point, he weighed just 134 lbs. He contemplated taking his own life.
He said the vulnerability, being forced to rely on others when for so long, he had been the person people looked to for help … “It was more than I could take.”
The father of four said he and his wife sold pretty much everything they owned. What they hadn’t sold was packed and ready. “She was going to move back to Ohio with the kids after I died.”
But here’s the thing. He didn’t die. And just as he had done a quarter century before, he reinvented himself.
Hampton grew up in Southern California. His passion in life: baseball. He was a pitcher. But then he threw his arm out and lost his baseball scholarship and was tossed out into the world. He chose to join the Air Force. He was 23 years old.
The first Gulf War had ended so it was a fairly peaceful period. Hampton figured he might see combat once, if at all, during his service.
9/11 changed things.
He ended up serving multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.
“Sometimes, I wish people could step inside my head for a half-second [just to see what I’ve seen]. But he demurred. Nobody needs to see that, he said.
When asked if he figured it was a matter of when versus if in terms of dying in combat, Hampton said, “After the first two tours, I realized if it’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen quick so why worry about it anyway?”
His life’s motto: Be a good person, and go as hard as you can for as long as you can.
In 2015, April Wolfe, who manages Adaptive and Inclusonary Programs for the City of Reno, suggested Hampton try DSES’s adaptive ski program. Hampton told DSES that given his spinal and brain injuries, he didn’t think it would be a good idea to get on skis. “They said we’ll retrain you to do it safely. That’s what we do. This is our specialty.”
So he showed up with his neck braces and his spine braces and no one blinked.
“It’s helped me a lot with my physical coordination,” he said, “but mostly, it’s helped me with my mental attitude.”
He then quoted his wife Renee, a nurse by trade, who told him, “We have to work together to find your new normal.”
The new normal has included gold and silver medals in swimming at the 2018 Invictus Games held in Sydney, Australia. The Invictus Games are like the Olympics for wounded or injured military personnel.
While skydiving will always remain Shay’s #1 thrill (he is an acknowledged adrenaline junkie), four-track skiing (what Hampton describes as regular skis on your feet along with mini-skis attached to a pair of walking crutches) has been a viable substitute.
Sheet: Have you had any major accidents on the hill?
Hampton (chuckling): Nah. But I’ve scared the hell out of them [his DSES instructors].
He explained that during his last trip to Mammoth, someone told him about a ski tracker app which can measure how fast you’re skiing.
So he gets off the lift and without a hint or word of explanation to his instructor Liz Burke (DSES’s 2018 Volunteer of the Year), he just goes. Bombs down the hill. Burke finally catches up to him at the lift and lets him have it – pouring out a mixture of fear and relief. “Did you forget how to turn?” she says (and Hampton admits she may have thrown in an expletive or two).
No, he did not forget how to turn. And reached a peak speed of 47 mph.
And these days, Hampton is weighing in at 174 pounds. Not as much as he’d like (and he admits he finds it difficult to keep his weight up), but a helluva lot better than 134. And after his Invictus Games triumph, he says his 10-year old daughter Hannah, “Thinks I’m a superhero.”
So look for Shay on the slopes. He’ll likely be the guy blowing past you.
The National Wounded Warrior Center, proposed to be built on the Cerro Coso college campus in Mammoth Lakes, would allow Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra to provide support services to more than 300 veterans and their families each year.
The 36-room facility would provide transitional housing designed for veterans, and include areas for recreation, learning and dining.
Veterans would also have access to educational and vocational programs, wellness and PTSD management training and therapuetic opportunities.
DSES is in the midst of an $18 million capital campaign. See the facing page for details.