Mettle to medal

Story by Keith Oliver, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity

Ramp up to Warrior Games began in the desert

Retired U.S. Army Capt. William Reynolds rides lead with an unidentified teammate during the Army's desert tune-up for the the 2016 DoD Warrior Games. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

Retired U.S. Army Capt. William Reynolds rides lead with an unidentified teammate during the Army’s desert tune-up for the the 2016 DoD Warrior Games. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

 

“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.

Retired Master Sgt. Shawn Vosburg (l) and retired Staff Sgt. Erick Acevedo are among the members of Team Army competing at the 2016 DoD Warrior Games at West Point, which began June 15.  (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

Retired Master Sgt. Shawn Vosburg (l) and retired Staff Sgt. Erick Acevedo are among the members of Team Army competing at the 2016 DoD Warrior Games at West Point, which began June 15. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

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.”

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Stefan LeRoy, a double amputee and multi-sport Warrior Games athlete, takes a break from his swimming workout during the Army Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. With LeRoy is his caregiver, Katie Smith and Knoxville, his faithful service dog.  (U.S. Army photo by Marcy Sanchez, Warrior Transition Command)

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Stefan LeRoy, a double amputee and multi-sport Warrior Games athlete, takes a break from his swimming workout during the Army Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. With LeRoy is his caregiver, Katie Smith and Knoxville, his faithful service dog. (U.S. Army photo by Marcy Sanchez, Warrior Transition Command)

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.

Air rifle competitor Spc. Sydney Davis got in lots of trigger time at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March as the Army team prepped for the 2016 DoD Warrior Games. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

Air rifle competitor Spc. Sydney Davis got in lots of trigger time at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March as the Army team prepped for the 2016 DoD Warrior Games. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

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.”

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Monica Southall prepares to throw the shotput during the Army’s Warrior Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Monica Southall prepares to throw the shotput during the Army’s Warrior Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

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.”

1st Lt. Chris Parks (in tie-dyed shirt) enjoys a moment of camaraderie with his Army teammates at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016 during the final tune-up for the 2016 DoD Warrior Games at West Point. Parks, diagnosed with a flesh-eating bacteria, said that the ability “to compete in sports has enabled the warrior side of me to resurface.” (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

1st Lt. Chris Parks (in tie-dyed shirt) enjoys a moment of camaraderie with his Army teammates at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016 during the final tune-up for the 2016 DoD Warrior Games at West Point. Parks, diagnosed with a flesh-eating bacteria, said that the ability “to compete in sports has enabled the warrior side of me to resurface.” (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

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.”

Retired Sgt. Ana Manciaz waits with fellow adaptive athletes during a break in the action at the Army Trials in Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

Retired Sgt. Ana Manciaz waits with fellow adaptive athletes during a break in the action at the Army Trials in Fort Bliss, Texas, in March 2016. (DoD image from video by Pete Ising, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity)

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.

Retired Spc. Haywood Range, shown competing at the 2015 DoD Warrior Games at Quantico, Va., figures to be an important piece of the Army's plans to retain the Warrior Games Commander's Cup at this year's games, hosted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Paul)

Retired Spc. Haywood Range, shown competing at the 2015 DoD Warrior Games at Quantico, Va., figures to be an important piece of the Army’s plans to retain the Warrior Games Commander’s Cup at this year’s games, hosted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Paul)

“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.”

Comments are closed.