AW2 commander talks adaptive sports

By Keith Oliver, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity
The Army’s Wounded Warrior Program Director, Col. David Oeschger, is himself a Purple Heart recipient and said he benefitted greatly from adaptive sports. (Photo by Andrew Wakeford, used with permission)

The Army’s Wounded Warrior Program Director, Col. David Oeschger, is himself a Purple Heart recipient and said he benefitted greatly from adaptive sports. (Photo by Andrew Wakeford, used with permission)

Soldiers spoke recently with the Director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, Col. David S. Oeschger, one of the key members of the Army’s Warrior Transition Command, about his service, his wounds and how adaptive sports are helping Soldiers and veterans heal.

What are your duties and responsibilities?

I have the great honor of being the director of the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program (AW2).  My program executes non-clinical advocacy for the Army’s seriously wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and veterans – and for their families and caregivers. We have 210 professional, highly capable advocates positioned both CONUS and across the world. They are incredible and they interface directly with our 20,000-plus clients to assist them with their myriad, complex life issues.

What led you to join the Army, including any family or other personal influencers.

My father, Colonel Oren Oeschger, U.S. Army (retired) is probably the greatest reason why I joined this incredible profession. From my his service in Vietnam to his almost 30-year commitment and dedication to the airborne community and the Army as a whole – how could my brother and I do anything but follow in his footsteps?  My brother, Colonel Mike Oeschger, is now the DIVARTY (division artillery) commander for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson and our children are either in the Army or seriously considering it as a career.

Why tanks?

The Army in its infinite wisdom selected the Armor Corps for me, and I could not have been happier with the choice. The Armor/Cav community is a truly special breed of warriors that can fight and win mounted or dismounted – never failing to accomplish the mission or care for its Soldiers. Besides, I bring a quality perspective to any family gatherings as an airborne Ranger tanker capable of expertly countering any airborne Ranger esprit de corps BS my father or brother might be espousing.

We have heard you speak of wounds or conditions that are not visible.  Please explain.

Every soldier out here did not necessarily receive his or her wounds in combat, nor is every wound, injury or illness readily recognizable. Wounded, ill, and/or injured Soldiers and veterans are all well represented on the various service teams in the Warrior Games. The Department of Defense is universally dedicated to ensuring they are treated with dignity and respect as they go through their healing process and then rejoin their units or transition well into the civilian world. And we appreciate that our teams are being made up of a greater number of athletes with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury – conditions which are receiving the focus they deserve. Our many athletes in these categories say there is a growing awareness that these are the defining injuries of our generation.

Col. David Oeschger, director of the Army's Wounded Warrior Program, called family and faith his two main keys to recovery following "eating a wall" during a suicide attack in Afghanistan. He also commended hospital staff in Germany and a new found tool: adaptive sports and conditioning.  (Photo courtesy the Oeschger family)

Col. David Oeschger, director of the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, called family and faith his two main keys to recovery following “eating a wall” during a suicide attack in Afghanistan. He also commended hospital staff in Germany and a new found tool: adaptive sports and conditioning. (Photo courtesy the Oeschger family)

You have direct experience with seen and unseen wounds. Can you talk about that?

In July 2011, my men and I were helping to counter a Taliban push to kill the Uruzghan Province Governor, Police Chief and other influential leaders. After a multiple hour firefight, two suicide bombers ignited their vests on my men as they attempted to clear the target building. The blasts blew my Soldiers from the building causing severe injuries but fortunately none were killed and all would make fantastic recoveries. I, unfortunately, took the brunt of the blasts based on my positioning outside the building. The concussive blast damage and the hundreds of pounds of debris caused massive internal injuries and breakages involving my back, pelvis, ribs and lungs. I had minutes to live and my Soldiers used that time wisely to treat and transport me to the Role 1 medical facility at Tarin Kot. I am alive today because of the incredible actions of my Soldiers and the life-saving techniques and commitment to mission executed by the military medical personnel in Tarin Kot, Kandahar, Kabul, Landstuhl and Walter Reed.

Obviously, your experiences – especially your recovery – have informed your leadership philosophy. Can you talk about that?

Because of the incredible advances in military medicine, my new normal is entirely acceptable. I might be shy a lung and run like Quasimodo, but I was given another chance to be an even better father, husband, brother, son, Soldier and leader. I am always optimistic and I am completely dedicated to ensuring programs like this one uphold a nation’s promise to its seriously wounded, ill and injured Soldiers. I never miss a chance to talk with Soldiers and their families and remind them they are serving and fighting for an Army that has responsibly created and maintained these types of programs that will care for them if they are ever injured.

 Where do you see adaptive reconditioning sports heading?

I have seen the power of AR and sports, and how they bring wounded, ill or injured Soldiers out of their shells. The more Soldiers get exposed to this type of activity in the recovery process, the better chance they will have of succeeding as they transition back to the force or into the civilian world. It is real easy to start feeling sorry for oneself when undergoing recovery for injuries or treatment for a long-term illness. AR counters this by providing a task and purpose. It may be command directed at first, but for most it becomes a way of life. The various services and the VA use adaptive reconditioning in about the same manner to achieve the same positive, life changing results. There are definitive synergies that could be gained if the DOD and VA merged their yearly capstone AR events: Valor Games and Warrior Games.

What thoughts would you like to leave us with?

If you are fortunate enough to witness the resilience of the Warrior Games athletes it will change your life. Watching a triple amputee swim 50 meters while gasping for air and straining to get the slightest bit of propulsion puts your issues and challenges into perspective. And the simple fact is, the athlete does not put out this kind of effort for your benefit, but to finish the race – a first-rate lesson in how to live.

Read about how the U.S. Army’s elite adaptive sports athlete’s began their journeys to the 2016 DoD Warrior Games: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2016/06/mettle-to-medal/.

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