Ramp up to Warrior Games began in the desert
“I think it’s really cool that they can do all those really cool things that some people can’t.”
— Tara Harris, 8, daughter of an Army adaptive athlete
A soaring, noble spirit not unlike that felt at the Olympics is enveloping one of America’s most famous campuses this month – a campus accustomed to nobility and dreams and duty and ambition.
The U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, may not be a “regular” college but that has never stopped summer tourists from flocking to its beautiful setting on the Hudson River. And it’s the perfect venue for the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games, where active duty, retired and former members from every branch of service are gathering to compete in a variety of athletic events. There, the defiant refuse to be hampered by the visible or invisible burdens of combat, injury or serious illness.
In addition to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, teams will be fielded from U.S. Special Operations Command and the British Armed Forces. The eight adaptive sports are archery, cycling, field (discus and shot put), sitting volleyball, shooting, swimming, track and wheelchair basketball.
For host Lt. Gen. Bob Caslen, the Academy’s superintendent, the venue is a natural. “These warrior athletes … embody the traits we aspire to instill in our graduates.
“They answered their nation’s call to service,” Caslen continued, “(and they) exemplify the very best of America.”
If the setting and the participants were not enough to get spectators’ hearts pumping, June 14, the eve of the Warrior Games, was Flag Day and the 241st Army birthday.
For the defending champion Army team, the journey to West Point started in the windswept desert of Fort Bliss, Texas, in March. That’s where the Warrior Games veterans and the newest wounded warriors tested their skills in a showcase environment, getting a feel for the timing, teamwork and natural distractions that characterize such gatherings.
Home to the nation’s only tank division (“Old Ironsides,” the 1st Armored Division), Fort Bliss straddles Texas and New Mexico over its 1.12 million acres. As with other posts designated as “centers of excellence,” the fort has been the beneficiary of a robust building program and boasts top-of-the-line training and headquarters facilities along with a full-fledged shopping mall as its post exchange and an abundance of new family housing units and modern recreational and leisure facilities.
Fort Bliss is also where the cuts were made to get the team roster down to the DoD Warrior Games’ standard of 40 adaptive athletes and ten alternates per team.
Not all the athletes are combat-wounded, explained Col. David Oeschger, director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program. Oeschger is himself a Purple Heart recipient who “ate a wall” when Taliban insurgents detonated two suicide bombs in a building he was clearing in Afghanistan in July 2011. “Our criteria has evolved,” he said, “and rightly so.”
“One of our aims is to make people aware of those conditions and illnesses – those wounds and scars that are not visible,” he said. “Whether you take a bullet or get blown up by an IED (improvised explosive device) or suffer from post-traumatic stress or you are fighting cancer, you are encouraged to try out for these games. And the skills you’ll learn through adaptive reconditioning, through adaptive sports, will be over-the-top beneficial to you, regardless of the specific medical challenges you are facing.”
Like many experts, the colonel calls post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury “the defining injuries of our generation, judging by the many athletes in these categories.” He is heartened that “PTS and TBI are receiving the focus they deserve.”
“Our clear objective is to help Soldiers get back in the fight,” said Oeschger, a military brat raised mostly in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “For some, that means a different kind of fight: succeeding, even flourishing, in the civilian world.”
Oeschger’s boss, Col. Chris Toner, leads the Warrior Transition Command and underscores the “Soldier for Life” aspect of his organization. He sees the games as “an opportunity for the services to communicate their sacred obligation and enduring commitment to their wounded, ill and injured – and their families and caregivers.”
One DoD Warrior Games aspirant at Fort Bliss, 1st Lt. Chris Parks, suffers from a flesh-eating bacteria but made the team in a whopping 6 of 8 events: cycling, field, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and wheelchair basketball.
“Being able to compete in sports has enabled the warrior side of me to resurface,” said the Lakeside, California, native. “Through that I have been able to find myself again.”
Motorcycle accident victim, Sgt. Ana Manciaz, a lower-extremity amputee who is competing in archery, cycling, swimming and track, expressed gratitude for the military rehabilitation sports programs and non-profits helping her thrive as an amputee.
The former cryptologic linguist from Los Lunas, New Mexico, has “learned to slow down, become more patient with myself and become stronger both inside and out.”
A fan favorite participating in his second games is Haywood Range III, 29, a medically retired infantryman who lost his right arm in a Humvee rollover at Fort Irwin, California. Range and his 10th Mountain Division teammates were training for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan when the mishap occurred.
The former Jacksonville University football star left school before graduating. “I wasn’t making the best choices,” Range said. “I went through a rough time and I found myself on the outside going nowhere, just stuck, feeling like a failure. I realized I needed to get my life back on track, so I decided to go serve my country.
“I do miss the Army,” the Jupiter, Florida, native shared. “I miss saluting, because of the amputation. I loved it. And I miss the camaraderie and embracing the suck.”
Aspiring to finish his degree and possibly coach football, Range feels he has been “so blessed with the opportunity to be involved in sports, especially after leaving college and believing those days were behind me. And I get to be around people who joined and made the same sacrifices as myself.
“The games are much more than competition, to me,” the track and field competitor went on. “I love to see an undaunted spirit. I love to watch and see the courage, fight and will of the athletes, I love to see them finish.”
The DoD Warrior Games, with opening ceremonies hosted by comedian Jon Stewart, afford fans multiple opportunities to access results and standings. Visit warriorgames.dodlive.mil to follow all the action.
Oeschger is hoping for “good numbers” from television and Internet viewers, but more than anything else, he wants “that lone former Soldier out there” to hear about the program. Drawing on the lessons learned from his own recovery in Germany, he said, “I know what adaptive reconditioning can do for a warrior. It is powerful.”