Roy Craddy, 91, doesn’t get cold. He wears a thin, gray hoodie. MARINES reads in gold font, down the side of his arm.
Craddy is a self-described historian of the Marines. And as a veteran of one of the Korean War’s most well-known outfits, he played a significant role in the Marines’ history, himself.
In his lap, he holds a boonie hat, prodded with a constellation of lapel pins—one for his beloved George Company ( 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines), and a beret-shaped pin for the Royal Marines—it’s to honor his service under Lt. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale at the Chosin Reservoir.
It’s early. And here, in the Main Lodge Mountain Conference Center, veterans, their spouses and friends, and staff from Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra (DSES), are caught up in the familiar haze of suiting up for a day on Mammoth Mountain—there is the click of boots, and the whirred exchange of anticipating voices.
But Craddy sits still. People come to him.
I just wanted to say hi, Craddy.
It’s always nice to see you back here, man.
I’ll see you on the mountain?
I tell Craddy that here, at Operation Mountain Freedom (OMF)—DSES’s weeklong adaptive winter sports camp for both active duty and veteran athletes—he seems like a local legend. He’s the guy everyone wants to talk to.
“I guess so,” admits Craddy. “But it’s hard to follow what they think I am. Because the Marine Corps was only a small part of my life.”
Craddy grew up in the mountains—he was born in Truckee, and came back to it after his service ended in ‘52.
“That’s when I stepped on the mine, and got blown up,” he says. “That changes your life a bit. I was 19 when it happened.”
Craddy—who by 18, had already put in 2 years at the U.S. Forest Service before heading off to boot camp at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, CA—returned to the USFS in 1953.
For the next 25 years, he worked in fire prevention, truck patrolling through the forests of Northern California, and contacting people in and around the area about fire mitigation tactics—what he calls “just a PR deal.”
He loved it. Says it was a lot more dangerous than serving as a marine. But that’s modesty from a biased source—as Craddy says, “Marines are a different breed.”
Despite his roots in Truckee, and having spent the majority of his life outdoors, Craddy didn’t come to alpine recreation until later in his life. He says he discovered DSES in 2009, through a friend of his at the Mountain Warfare Training Center.
Craddy is a bi-skier—the bi-ski, being an adaptive method of alpine skiing, in which Craddy sits in a bucket-style seat with two skis attached to its underwide. An instructor skis behind Craddy, manning the bi-ski, while Craddy indicates direction by leaning right or left.
But, says Craddy: “The main reason I’m here is because, well, I’m the oldest one here. I want to let the younger guys know there’s a group here. A group that can help them—knows what they’re feeling. I know what they’re feeling.”
Craddy means young marines like Ray Brito, a marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in the Wounded Warrior Battalion—a unit aimed at the “support, recovery and non-medical care of combat and non-combat wounded, ill, and injured [marines]… to maximize their recovery as they return to duty or transition to civilian life” (www.woundedwarrior.marines.mil/).
Why the marines? I ask Brito.
“It’s the hardest one,” he says. Brito, prior to being stationed at Camp Pendleton, worked in comms at the Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Why Operation Mountain Freedom? I ask him.
“It’s the community part of it… giving back to the older veterans who haven’t been around younger marines in a while,” he says. “All these old cats… it’s a give and take. They get my jokes, my energy. We laugh. But they give me all this advice, too.”
Brito describes a jaunt up to Crab Cooker Hot Springs, earlier in the week. A cold plunge with the older guys, too, after their first full day of Mammoth skiing.
For Manny Del Rio, the exposure to many generations of military vets is an essential part of cultivating a healing environment at Operation Mountain Freedom.
“I think just bringing in the older guys, that makes the group stronger,” says Del Rio. “Learning from guys like Roy makes us realize—we have it a lot better than he and his friends did, right? It makes you realize how far along the country has come.”
DSES’s programming is unique, in that it serves veterans of all different military backgrounds.
Del Rio, who served in the Navy on the USS Kitty Hawk air carrier assisting with the landing and recovery of aircraft, was critically injured on his third deployment while his crew was towing a jet for maintenance.
“It towed forward. They didn’t see me. I got Medevac’d to Okinawa, Japan. That’s where I realized they had actually amputated my leg on the ship.”
As the Navy man pointed out, many similar veteran-outreach programs only cater toward those wounded in combat, rather than those wounded on active duty but in non-combat events.
“And that’s totally understandable,” he says. “You can’t help everyone all at once. But here, having that diversity in people and programming really helps.”
Craddy, the cool old cat, sits at the table, still. For Operation Mountain Freedom, and the rest of Mammoth, it’s 8:30. Time to hit the lifts.
Craddy looks to his gear, woefully.
“The Royal Marines, you know, they wore the beret. Not a helmet. I didn’t wear a helmet, either. You couldn’t hear a thing with it on.”
I ask him if he wears a helmet now, on the mountain.
“Only because they require it,” he says. “But you know, I’ve always been a little bit of a rebel.”
Once the troops have mobilized out of Main Lodge, I get the chance to catch up with newly-minted DSES Executive Director, Marisa Gierlich. The goal being to join Craddy on his bi-ski for a few runs—but, he’s lapping Chair 11 with his DSES volunteer, Josh, faster than we can track him down.
It gives Gierlich and I some time to talk about the program on the lift.
As Gierlich explains, DSES, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was founded by longtime Mammoth fixture, Kathy Copeland.
“At that time, California had mandates in place where you couldn’t use volunteers, only, to instruct people with disabilities. You had to have trained instructors, but they just didn’t have the bandwidth,” explains Gierlich. “But Kathy knew everyone—she went straight to the Board [of the mountain] and said ‘I’m going to start an adaptive ski school. I need uniforms, office space, and equipment.’ They said ‘Okay.’”
At first, DSES staff were bolstered with the help of a few volunteers. On Tuesday morning, 120 volunteers showed up to pitch in.
You can find the organization’s mission on their website— “facilitating fun, inclusive, and individualized mountain sports opportunities for people of all ages and abilities.” DSES rallies the community to provide expert instruction, adaptive equipment, and to foster an environment that accommodates differently abled persons on Mammoth Mountain.
Operation Mountain Freedom, a brainchild of DSES since 2007, partners with MMSA, the Inyo National Forest Service, and more recently, Elevate Mammoth—Mammoth Hospital’s community wellness & performance program. Participants of OMF often live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Major Depressive Disorder, and/or have sustained serious physical injuries from their time in service.
“About five years ago,” explains Gierlich, “there was a major shift beyond just the sports part, in terms of the veteran world, especially. Now, it’s about helping people with overall well-being. We want to focus on a more holistic approach to lifestyle and recovery.”
Elevate Mammoth, says Gierlich, volunteers with programming throughout the week that Operation Mountain Freedom takes place—they teach Tai Chi, and yoga. They give nutritional instruction, and offer techniques in how to cope with extreme stress.
Later, Gierlich’s colleague, Chair of the DSES Board of Directors, and himself a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron-169, Steve Mount, offered insight into the ethos behind OMF’s programming:
“You know, these guys have had life changing experiences. But their identity hasn’t changed,” said Mount. “Our camps are about instilling that confidence back in them. The idea is— ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’”
On just about every run, Marisa and I find a group of DSES volunteers and Operation Mountain Freedom participants. A few are on bi-skis, like Craddy. Others are three tracking—another adaptive alpine skiing method by which skiers (typically with use of two arms and one leg) use a standard ski and two outriggers on their poles to make three contact points with the snow for added balance.
Active-duty men and women—or “athletes” as designated by DSES—are riding and skiing, too.
Some have spent a lifetime on the slopes. For others, it’s only their second time up. For all of us, it’s a bluebird day in Mammoth. The mountain has filled in beautifully. And being that it’s a Tuesday, it’s not all that crowded. Everyone, really, is happy to be there.
Come 11:30, though, there’s an effort to move people inside (apparently, the day before, a few vets had skipped out on meals so they could ski for a while longer).
So, in Main Lodge, comes those rarest of gifts—a free lunch—and the sweet reprieve of depressurized boot bash.
Angie Mix, who served in the Airforce’s 99th Communications Squadron, is getting some boot-tugging-off assistance from her wife, Anna—a lifelong skier, and Colorado-native.
According to Mix, and courtesy of the DSES organization, she and her wife have been put up at the Westin Hotel in The Village, on the seventh floor, overlooking a view of the mountains and the gondola cars floating past.
“They rolled out the red carpet for us,” says Mix, who found Operation Mountain Freedom through a women veterans page on Facebook.
She reflected on the week. What it’s like to get up on skis for the first time. How she’s glad to be learning at Mammoth, with a community she trusts.
“In the military, there’s this sense of camaraderie and togetherness and connectedness—this baseline respect for each other for having something in common,” says Mix. “Now, we all have this similar thread of being a veteran… And being challenged here, in some similar ways we were challenged in the military, gets us to push ourselves a little further.”
Mix says that getting outside into nature, too, has been a critical part of her healing journey, after returning home.
“I didn’t even realize that was something I was missing,” says Mix.
Not long after, lunch begins to wrap up. The coffee in the carafes has turned cold. And the conference room is clearing out—quicker than rooms like that tend to—with people headed for the next item on the agenda. That, I guess, is the military way.
Del Rio sticks behind for a moment. Says one last thing.
“You know, we were in Tai Chi yesterday, and our instructor kept saying ‘Nothing lasts forever.’ Like, whatever you’re going through ‘Nothing lasts forever.’ I think that means there’s always room for change, always time to continue.”
Del Rio pauses.
“Could be a small goal—getting off the lift, whatever—or taking care of what you need to, back home,” he says. “Nothing, really nothing, has to stay the same forever.”