Late Breaking News
More Wounded Soldiers Seeking Opportunities and Challenges Overcoming Their Disabilities
WASHINGTON, DC—While new improvements in in-theater medical care mean that more wounded soldiers are surviving disabling injuries, those same soldiers are recovering faster and seeking more opportunities and challenges when it comes to overcoming their disabilities. One of those opportunities is through adaptive sports, which have been used in the physical therapy of injured servicemembers for decades. For more than 20 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has partnered with organizations helping provide access to those sports to veterans.
However, it was just last year that Congress authorized VA to provide grants via the United States Olympic Committee to local disabled sports programs and to offer per diems to veterans training at USOC facilities. The law allows VA to award grants through USOC to fund Paralympic instruction, competition activities, and training program development activities for service members and veterans with physical disabilities. In this year’s proposed VA appropriation’s bill, legislators have included an amendment increasing funding for the program to $10 million.
Reentering Life Through Sports
At a hearing on how adaptive sports activities help improve the lives of veterans, legislators were told that the need for such support will only increase in the coming years. Sergeant Kortney Clemons, USA (Ret), lost his right leg to a roadside bomb in March 2004 while serving in Baghdad. Six months later, he was learning to run on a prosthetic limb. “I’ll never forget the day a US Olympic Committee employee and Paralympic mentor, John Register, came to the Amputee Care Center at Brooke Army Medical Center,” Sgt. Clemons told members of the House VA Committee. “An amputee himself, he was meeting with injured soldiers to tell us about the USOC’s Paralympic Military Program. I was still learning how to walk, but seeing him demonstrate how to run that day changed everything for me.”
The arc of Sgt Clemons rehabilitation changed to not only include learning to walk again, but to relearn how to run and compete with others. Within the first year after being wounded, he claimed the US National Paralympic title in the 100 meter sprint, and went on to compete in the 2009 Parlympic games in Beijing. “To me, sport equals quality of life. It represents health and freedom. One of the past participants at a USOC Military Sports Camp summed it up best when he said, ‘Rehab helps you exist. Sports help you really live.’ I understand completely what he meant when he shared those feelings,” Sgt. Clemons said.
Captain Nathan Waldon, USA, lost his right leg in July 2007 conducting combat operations in Baghdad. He testified that, not only did participating in adaptive sports help him improve physically, but allowed him to make the leap necessary in order to fully recover mentally and emotionally. “I had always been very independent and self sufficient. But now I couldn’t walk. What made this even worse was that sports and physical activity were such a large part of my identity. I was only focusing on the negative, but without that outlet, who was I. I truly felt lost,” Capt. Waldon explained. “My conditioning even after my inpatient time allowed me to quickly achieve the goals of the physical therapists, but to me they seemed somewhat mundane. I didn’t want to be able to do crunches and pull-ups. I wanted to be active.”
Because of his excellent progress in physical and occupational therapy, his physicians recommended that he go on an adaptive sports trip. “It was December at this point, and an organization known as DSUSA was hosting the Hartford Ski Spectacular, along with the Wounded Warrior Project. I decided to go, and it was one of the best decisions I have made,” Capt. Waldon said. “It was like learning sports as a child all over again though. I felt like such a fool falling all over the place. You want to quit…you want to give up. Your strength isn’t there. Your [prosthetic leg] isn’t doing what you want it to, but the lessons instilled as a child were still there. I am thinking, humility, just swallow your pride, get out there, battle it, don’t give up. The instructors and the event were exceptional. By the end of the week, I had made progress, but I did not want to be adequate, I wanted to excel like I always had.”
“What we get through this adaptive sports program is our competitive nature back, which is inherent to everybody in the military,” explained Capt. Mark Little, USA, who now serves as a police officer in Fairfax County, VA. “Seeing all the people that come before us, we have to set that bar higher and better.”
Capt. Little noted that funding of adaptive sports activities at all levels is important, especially in communities where veterans would never get an opportunity to participate in one of the national programs,” he said. “The first time I ran ever, missing both legs, wasn’t at physical therapy and it wasn’t at a national event. It was a [Disabled Sports USA] intern invited me to play kickball on the National Mall. And in order to get to first base, I had to move expeditiously, so I quickly taught myself how to run after thumping a ball with a titanium foot. And it’s things like that we need in our communities, because not everyone stays in D.C. If you’re out in the middle of Green Springs, Idaho, there’s not going to be that program there yet, and there needs to be little things—like kickball or the softball league—that’s going to get people up moving.”
Younger Veterans Expecting More
Recent studies have shown that disabled veterans have an increased risk of suicide, homelessness, divorce, and chronic diseases exacerbated by an inactive lifestyle, such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. “The introduction of sports in the rehabilitation process, and continued participation in sports after discharge from the hospital, will have a direct and positive influence on the prevention of these conditions,” explained Julia Ray, manager of the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project at DS/USA, established in 1967 and one of the members of the USOC. For the past 6 years, DS/USA has partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project on the WWDSP to help train disabled veterans in sports as part of their rehabilitation.
Since its inception, WWDSP has aided over 2,500 severely injured service and family members. H,ospital staff have participated in more than 350 events in 25 different sports. A recent DS/USA survey found that wounded veterans were more than twice as likely (64% compared to 30%) than the general disabled population to be regularly involved in physical activity and that 52% (compared with 33% of the general population) were employed. In addition, over half of those who were not working were enrolled in college or in certification courses.
“Given today’s high unemployment rate, this survey confirmed how important it is for wounded warriors to stay active in sports, utilizing all the tools possible to gain employment and advance in their careers,” Ray said. “Wounded warriors are even finding gainful employment in the field of adaptive sports.WWDSP has seen several participants make meaningful contributions as program managers, mentors, coaches, and volunteers.”
And younger veterans expect more from their rehabilitation, and expect to participate in competitive sports and events at even greater levels. “There are those who wish to compete and train as integrated, non-disabled members of society, in golf tournaments, triathlons, adventure races, and conquer goals that many of us would only dream of--climbing Kilimanjaro, competing in the Paralympics, or completing the Hawaii Ironman. This is an ongoing process that requires support at an unprecedented level,” Ray declared. “All of these [opportunities] require a great deal of investment financially.”
With the help of increased funding from Congress, the USOC will have expanded programs to more than 150 communities in 2009, as well as community technical assistant from 14 VA facilities to 30 facilities and transition support for veterans from 11 facilities to 20. The Use’s goal is to establish programming serving injured military personnel and veterans in 250 communities based by 2012.
“We can do this because of collaboration with partner organizations like the VA and DoD, and a well established infrastructure of community sport programs. More than 60 organizations are members of the USOC, with more than 50 million members in big cities and small towns throughout the United States,” explained Charlie Huebner, USOC, chief of Paralympics. “Our strategy is focused on a cost efficient model of training and collaboration with key partners such as Disabled Sports USA, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Recreation & Park Association, the American Legion and other USOC member organizations. Collectively, we are investing more than $40 million of private resources annually.”