It was a Jeep that changed Clint Wilson's life for the worse.
Wilson, 25, of Tyrone, was a student at Penn State Altoona studying business who planned to continue school until he received his master's degree.
A baseball pitcher in high school and college, he was 6 feet 7 inches tall and in peak physical condition.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Standing from left are:?Nathan McGuire of Arlington, Va.; Clint Wilson of Tyrone, who is rebuilding a Jeep owned by Jeremy Hopper, a soldier now serving in Afghanistan; Ed Wilson, Clint’s father of Tyrone; Dustin Rudasill of Tyrone; and Jason Eddy of Altoona. Kneeling is Manuel Castro of Miami, Fla., who came in from Miami just to help Wilson with the project.
But on July 20, 2010, Wilson climbed into a Jeep with a friend who drove a little too fast, hit a curb and crashed. Wilson received a traumatic brain injury from the accident, along with five fractures in his back.
More than two years later, it's still a bumpy ride for Wilson. The TBI has damaged his memory, and he has developed attention deficit disorder. It's not uncommon for him to become preoccupied with a certain task or forget what he was saying mid-sentence. Wilson's physical fitness has waned, and he recently underwent another back surgery to try to correct the injuries he sustained from the crash.
In his darkest moments, Wilson has thought about, and even tried, to end his life.
"Pretty much, I'll know in the morning if I'm going to have a bad day or not," Wilson said. "If I'm going to have a bad day, I'm just not worth anything. I'll stay in bed, my back will hurt, my mind will start. I've got to keep busy."
But a few months ago, Wilson started a project that has given him the motivation to get up in the morning.
He decided to do a good deed for an Army sergeant who had also sustained a TBI in combat. Though they've never met face-to-face, Wilson said he and the soldier - Jeremy Hopper of Hope Mills, N.C. - "talk like they're brothers" because of the similarities in their symptoms.
Wilson vowed to completely overhaul Hopper's car in time for his arrival back home after a year-long tour in Afghanistan.
Hopper's car is a Jeep. That means, coincidentally, Jeeps have also changed Wilson's life for the better.
"I slowly learned that was the only thing that kept me calm, was building it," Wilson said of the work he did on the Jeep he owns, and then for Hopper. "I'll be out there, 10 hours a day, just working on it. ... I never thought I'd be building Jeeps. It's good because I don't have to remember stuff. Everything is hands-on."
Wilson has found more than just a hobby through building Jeeps - he has found a community. That community has provided other people willing to help overhaul Hopper's Jeep, as well as close to $10,000 in sponsorships through the donation of both money and parts from more than 20 businesses across the country and abroad.
It's why Wilson is now "best friends" with the UPS and FedEx workers, and why his cell phone bill jumped from 300 to 1600 minutes over just a few months.
"With the people I have behind me, they have no questions," Wilson said. "It's just, what can I do to help?"
The Jeep has lovingly been nicknamed "The Helihopper," a combination of Hopper's last name and his background working on helicopters and other aircraft. Wilson helps keep sponsors and fans of the project updated through a group on Facebook which has more than 500 members.
Hopper said over an email interview that he was "in disbelief" when he found out that Clint had taken on this project.
"Nothing like this ever happens to me," Hopper wrote. "Usually I am the one helping others and volunteering my time. ... To have so many great people and companies involved in something for someone they have never met is truly overwhelming.
"I will forever be indebted and grateful for such amazing people in my life."
And after sustaining his TBI injury in June after an explosion when his base was attacked, Hopper added that he's found it invaluable to have someone like Clint to talk to.
"Unless you've been there in that situation, you don't truly know how it feels, what your mind is doing, the pain that radiates through your head," Hopper wrote. "That is really what brought Clint and I closer as friends, and now close as brothers. ... Our TBIs kept us awake non-stop, so we would sit and keep each other company online and help the other through the pain and loneliness that would take hold and send you spiraling into depression.
"We knew what the other was going through and we could relate. Honestly, that has made all the difference."
The Helihopper is in the final stages of being built after Wilson and other volunteers did a bulk of the work during the last week of August. Wilson said there were as many as nine men working at a time, building the Jeep in his driveway without a garage or power tools.
Manuel Castro,of Miami, who owns a store where he sells Jeep and truck parts, flew up for that whole week to volunteer his time to work on the Helihopper.
He said he wanted to do this for Hopper, even though they've never met, because he and all other military personnel fighting overseas do so much for millions of people they don't know.
"All the guys that go there don't care who we are, where we come from, what language we speak, they go there and fight for our freedom," Castro said. "If he's doing this for me, I can do something for him back. It's saying thanks for what he does."
Wilson and Castro, along with other builders, plan to go to Hopper's home in North Carolina to deliver the Jeep when he is scheduled to return home next week. Hopper said excitement "doesn't even begin to express" how he feels about not only seeing the Jeep, but meeting the people who have become his "family."
Wilson said he will probably never be able to return to college, but his love of building Jeeps will most likely turn into a career.
"All the doctors say they can't believe how quickly I came out of this because most people will just lay in bed and be miserable," he said. "I mean, there are days that I am miserable, but the accident, whatever, it happened. It sucked because everything changed in my life, but I enjoy it. I enjoy going out and wrenching on Jeeps and seeing what their potential is."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.