Paralympic Summit Held For Wounded Veterans
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – In the dining hall of the U.S. Olympic Complex, instantly recognizable speedskating champion Apolo Anton Ohno sat at a large, round table, talking to some unrecognizable young men who had gathered to meet him after the dinner rush ended. But on this night, it turns out Ohno was the ordinary guy.
Around him were men who, leaning to one side, wearing baggy shirts, sitting quietly with their hands in their laps, only looked ordinary.
One of Bill Wright’s legs is mangled, but at least he has both of them. Anthony Smith’s right arm is missing and he doesn’t have much of a hip anymore, just a mass of bone-hard scar tissue. Luke Murphy’s one leg, if you can still call it a leg, is burned and shriveled and held together by a dozen screws and a series of rings that look like scaffolding.
They are not Olympians, or hopefuls, or even athletes just yet. They are soldiers, or at least they were once.
”We trained hard, too, but we didn’t win a gold medal,” Murphy, 25, an army sergeant, told Ohno.
The meeting, during which they talked about their hometowns and classic cars, seemed to earn the skater’s awe…
”It was an honor for me,” he said.
After Ohno left, Murphy explained, ”I just wanted to meet a gold medalist.”
The occasion for the meeting was the Paralympic Military Summit, an expenses-paid sports clinic for wounded veterans, most of them still patients at Brooke Army Medical Center near San Antonio, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., or the James A. Haley Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tampa, Fla.
The summit is a taste of the life of an Olympian, a chance to sleep and eat like one, to get instruction in the same facilities, to compete in an event or two, to test-drive their new $30,000 prosthetics, to tease and cheer and make small talk, to feel, for a few days, like life hasn’t changed all that much.
Murphy described the purpose of the weekend as the vague but important need to ”get stuff straight in my head.”
”It’s weird to see people back home doing the same things they were doing before the war,” Murphy said. ”You know, going to bars, getting drunk, stupid stuff. Nothing’s different. Life is so fragile. That’s why it’s good to be able to come here.”
Since the start of the Iraq war, almost 20,000 soldiers have been injured. More than 500 are amputees, owing mostly to insurgents’ roadside bombs.
”During Desert Storm, we saw injuries related to tanks flipping over, or driving a Humvee too fast, or friendly fire,” said Cathy Williams, a physical therapist at the Tampa VA.
”We’re seeing a lot more amputations because of the kind of ballistics used,” said Robert d’Angelo, a physician’s assistant in the Amputee Center at Brooke.
Yet, more soldiers than ever, about 90 percent compared to about 70 percent during the Vietnam War era, are surviving their wounds thanks to better armor, advances in field medicine and the swiftness with which the wounded are transported to hospitals.
Some of these survivors are candidates for the U.S. Paralympic team.
The first Paralympic Games (short for Parallel Olympics) were held in 1960, and the first winter games followed in 1976. They are held at the same time and in the same place as the regular Olympic Games.
Often confused with the Special Olympics, the Paralympics began in 1948 as a sports competition for wounded British veterans, held on the lawn of a hospital in southern England. Although the games started as a vehicle for soldiers, the vast majority of Paralympic athletes today are accident victims, cancer survivors, or those with birth defects.
The Paralympics are governed the same way as the regular games. There are 22 summer sports, 4 winter sports. Each sport has different categories to accommodate the range of disabilities. Swimming alone has 12 categories. The competition is fierce and top-notch.
For the U.S. Olympic Committee (of which paralympics are a division), the purpose of the military summits – several are held during the year – is to stir interest and cultivate a potentially important pipeline of athletes.
”You can already feel the difference” made by the casualties of the war, said Beth Bourgeois, spokeswoman for the U.S. Paralympics.
But for the veterans, the purpose is something much more basic.
”Right now they’re having to ask themselves some difficult questions,” said John Register, himself a former world-class athlete, a veteran of Desert Storm, and an amputee, who helped run the summit. ”They’re asking, ‘Who am I now? Am I still a father? Am I still a husband or wife?’ Sports help put answers to some of those questions.”
Register, 41, lost his leg 12 years ago as the result of a freak accident unrelated to the war; he suffered a severe hyperextension of his knee while running hurdles and severed a major artery.
”Sports helps you test what’s inside,” Register said. ”Hopefully they’ll eventually see they are not that much different than before. This will help speed up that process. Family, religion, friendships, it all gets tested”
Advocates for the disabled predict Iraq veterans could account for 10 percent of the 500-member Paralympic team in 2012 in London.
Thus, the bonding and rigors of the Paralympic Military Summit – which range from having a piece of red velvet cake in the Olympic complex cafeteria with Apolo Ohno to a competitive game of sitting volleyball or even a crash on the first turn of a wheelchair relay race.
That is what happened to Josh Stein that weekend a few weeks ago on an indoor track at the Air Force Academy. He narrowly avoided taking down another contestant. But he survived the spill just fine, discovering he is more durable than he thought after losing both legs above the knees in bomb blast.
In the group at the summit, there are many types – quiet but cheerful, sober and wary, and then there is Stein, a running tap of jokes.
”If you’re dull, nobody’s going to like you,” said the 23-year-old, who drew a face at the end of his thigh where the rest of his leg was taken. He also severely injured one arm.
Pfc. Stein, an Army brat who grew up on the Pacific island of Saipan, enlisted right after Sept. 11, 2001. He was driving an armored Bradley Fighting vehicle when it triggered an improvised explosive. The lower half of his body was shredded by darts of molten copper. He managed, somehow, to steer the vehicle about 100 yards to the safety of an embankment.
”There was a flash,” he said. ”I hit my head. I smelled something burning. That was me.”
His goal is not so much the Paralympics or even to compete in a sport.
”I want to ride my dirt bike,” he said. ”You can’t stop me.”
These are not men out of touch with their limits. Ask Stein and Patrick Myers, 23, who also ran the wheelchair sprint, what has bedeviled them the most about their injuries and they’ll say (in coarser terms), going to the bathroom.
”It’s the simplest things you used to take for granted,” Stein said.
An athlete in high school, James Stuck, 22, is sure he will someday savor a Paralympic moment.
He ran the 100 in less than 14 seconds at the summit, eight months after his right leg was amputated below the knee. The Paralympic standard is just shy of 11 seconds.
”With my size and my athletic ability, I figure I have a pretty good chance,” he said.
Stuck, who learned to snowboard after his injury, counts himself as very lucky. The location of his amputation, leaving a healthy knee joint, was crucial to his mobility.
He has no memory of the explosive that injured him near Kirkuk. But he wants to remember it.
”I got all my X-rays in a portfolio. It’s part of my life… I’m lucky to be alive, that’s what I really believe. You never get used to it, but I accept what happened. I knew the consequences going in. I can’t go back in time. I can’t grow a new leg. This is what it’s going to be.”
Tawan Williamson, 30, who lost his leg, is another veteran with promise. From a seated position, he threw a discus 92 feet his first try.
”I’d like to see how far this can take me, maybe Beijing,” where the Olympics will be held in 2008, said Williamson. ”This has let me know the extent of what I can do.”
Some of the soldiers at the summit did not initially choose to come.
The first time Anthony Smith attended, a year ago, it was on orders from his doctor. Once he arrived, he didn’t want to leave his room.
”I told them if you don’t come and get me, I’m not going,” said Smith, a quartermaster in the Arkansas National Guard. ”They kept coming to get me.”
He was angry back then and let it show. In his mind, it was a lucky shot. And besides he was in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, safe, he thought, ready for a game of cards and a workout.
He took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. The missile went through his hip and stomach before it exploded, throwing him against a brick wall. Shrapnel took his arm. The enemy fired several rounds at his maimed body. He was put in a body bag before a nurse noticed air bubbles oozing through the blood.
He was in a coma for 44 days and only recently regained most of his memory. He can walk with crutches. He has undergone dozens of surgeries and learned to write and throw a ball to his child with his left hand.
”People who are able-bodied, the pastor, the psychologist, the doctor, the therapist, I felt like they didn’t understand,” said Smith, who volunteered to attend two more summits. ”When I’m here, I know I’m not the only one. This is our own little world.”
It’s a world in which the relative term known as happiness takes on remarkable dimensions. Take Daniel Robles, 35, once ”big, bad drill Sgt. Robles, now bilateral amputee Robles,” as he puts it.
He was five years from retirement when he was deployed to Iraq. He was on his way to investigate a weapons cache south of Baghdad when his convoy hit a roadside bomb. He lost one leg instantly. What remained of the other barely dangled. He tied his own tourniquet so hard it broke off.
”Most people put on their pants in the morning,” he said. ”I put on my legs. I don’t have anything to complain about. Any day walking is a good day. I get a chance to watch my daughter (who is 5) grow up.”