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National Wounded Warrior Center: a healing place for veterans

Photo from National Wounded Warrior Center

Transitioning out of the military can be uniquely challenging, especially for veterans dealing with an injury or illness. That's why a nonprofit in Mammoth Lakes, California is planning to open a National Wounded Warrior Center. Reno Public Radio's Michelle Bliss reports that veterans, and even active service members, will be able to live at the center, healing physically and emotionally as they make the leap into civilian life.

The group behind this vision is Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, an adaptive sports school for disabled athletes. They offer instruction and events for everything from skiing and snowboarding to hiking and biking, so that no one wanting to enjoy the outdoors is left behind. For the past several years, trainer Maggie Palchak says the group has been hosting camps specifically for wounded warriors.

"Through offering these programs, we've seen that there is further need that can be addressed--that we, in fact, can address--to help these wounded warriors take that step to rebuild their life and become successful as civilians," Palchak says.

Often, camp participants will say that the hardest thing about serving in the military is actually leaving the military. Palchak says that's because a lot of the skills they learn are not immediately transferable to civilian life.

"Also, they're in an environment which is a survival environment--everything is structured; everything is under chain of command,” Palchak says. “When they return to their families, this hyper-vigilance that they learned to survive doesn't serve them in everyday life."

Marine Corps Captain Sarah Bettencourt recently weathered this transition when she retired for medical reasons two years ago.

"Yeah, it's great being able to sleep in, but you don't want to sleep in. You want to wake up and you want to lead people and you want to train people and you want to motivate people and then you want to go accomplish something,” Bettencourt says. “What if you don't have anyone to train or lead or motivate? And you have nothing to accomplish? You have this big void in your life."

Bettencourt, who has attended a handful of the wounded warrior camps, suffers from a cerebral inflammatory disorder. Basically, she has inflammation of the brain which wreaks havoc on her body. The camps have helped Bettencourt return to the slopes, but they've also provided her with a sense of community and camaraderie; she finally knows people going through similar challenges who she can lean on for advice.

"Even the little questions like: How do you get into your bathroom now? How did you build that ramp? How do you use a sink? Just everyday things that most able-bodied folks don't think of," Bettencourt says.

The planned National Wounded Warrior Center will house up to 40 service members and will provide comprehensive help, including physical and emotional therapy, job and apprenticeship training, educational opportunities, and, of course, sports programming. So far, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra is in the early stages of a $23 million capital campaign. The group has secured land for the facility, which it plans to open by spring of 2016.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.