Discipline. Fitness. Teamwork. Athleticism. All of these traits, and many more, are crucial traits for service members.
Military training amplifies all of those traits and ingrains them into a daily part of a service member’s life – both in the service and beyond.
But sometimes our service members return home with injuries that render their athletic, physical lifestyle impossible. Devastating though they can be, those injuries do not mean the end of teamwork, fitness, goal setting and, subsequently, goal reaching. Adaptive sports help wounded warriors rebuild their strength and endurance, and give them new goals to shoot for.
In 2010, the Department of Defense held its inaugural Warrior Games where wounded, ill and injured service members competed in Paralympic-style events. It’s since become an annual event. This year the games were hosted by the U.S. Navy in partnership with the City of Chicago, marking the first time the games were held at a non-Olympic or military location. Seven teams – Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, SOCOM, the UK and Australia – competed against each other in archery, cycling, field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and wheelchair basketball.
Important as medical intervention was for the physical injuries, it took more than skilled medical professionals to get these service members moving again. Behind many of them is an exceptional family support system.
Recognizing that, the Warrior Games has made its program about more than just the athletes. It also is about the families. The No. 1 cheerleaders. The support systems. The ones the athletes say they couldn’t do without.
“The families are there from day one,” says Dario Santana, 2017 Warrior/Invictus Games Family Lead and Commander, Navy Installations Command. “That means they also have had challenges. A lot of these families have had to put their careers on hold. When an athlete gets to the point where they are participating in a sport on their own, that family member behind them also is recovered to that point because they walked this whole path with the service member and changed their whole life to ensure their loved one gets to that stage. They’re there when the lights go out, when they go home from the hospital, when the doctors aren’t here anymore. They know how the service member really feels. They’re the number one fans in the audience. It’s not just about the athletes; it’s about their families. They’re the true VIPs of the event.”
The Warrior Games finances an all-expenses-paid trip for up to two family members for each athlete, thanks to presenting sponsors Boeing and Fisher House Foundation Inc.
When the first Fisher House opened in 1991, the foundation perhaps didn’t realize it was just the beginning of making an extraordinary impact on military families across the nation. Today, 72 Fisher Houses provide free lodging for almost 30,000 families per year who need to be near their hospitalized service member.
Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher House, noticed adaptive sports through the Invictus Games a few years ago and realized the connection between adaptive sports and the family. (Prince Harry founded the international Invictus Games after seeing the Warrior Games.) “I realized there was a real connection between the games themselves and the family’s journey,” he says. “In the beginning when Fisher House sees these families, their lives have been turned upside down. Their burdens have grown because they got that dreaded phone call a loved one is in the hospital. They walk this road together. The family serves as well.”
Adaptive sports become an integral part of their recovery. “They are empowered. It’s fantastic for self-esteem,” Fisher says. “For them to get to a point where they are competitors and not wounded warriors is not only great for them, but for the families. It became a celebration.”
That celebration recognizes the journey to get to the competition field. “In the beginning you were seeing uncertainty, frowns and despair on the faces of the families,” Fisher says. “Now I was seeing smiles and laughter. I was seeing so much of what we had always hoped we would see from these families. We’ve seen them at the worst possible time and now we’re seeing them at the best possible time.
These are men and women who were told years ago what they could never do again. Now, because of adaptive sports, they suddenly can do things even they didn’t think they could do. That’s a powerful reminder these men and women have incomparable spirits. It’s just remarkable.”
Santana recalls several stories from past years that illustrate what the Warrior Games is really about. He describes a Marine, about 6 feet, 4 inches tall. A country boy who once had been a football player. An active man. After multiple tours, a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, he segregated himself from life and stayed at his mom’s farm. When the Marine Corps visited to encourage him in general, the mother told them how her son didn’t leave the farm. So the Marines introduced this young man to adaptive sports. Specifically, shot put. “If you see this guy play shot, he threw this thing so far out,” Santana says. “There are tons of stories like that.”
Another woman – a mother of an athlete – told Santana the last time she had seen her son was in the hospital, newly missing a limb from combat injuries. The Warrior Games hosted her, though, giving her the means to see her son and grandchild for the first time in a long time.
Yet another family member – a wife of a service member – explained how she changed her whole concept of life after her husband was injured. Prior to that, she had been a successful hedge fund manager. The injury, and subsequent path to the new normal, let her see that life isn’t about money; it’s about being happy.
“What I can tell you is that these are men and women who raise their hands for their country, and behind them is a strong family unit,” Santana says.
Throughout the past seven years, the games have celebrated these athletes and their families, and have provided an opportunity for wounded service members to push themselves physically and rejoin a team and the camaraderie that comes with it – something a lot of them sorely missed. Read three of their stories here:
Master Sgt. Francis “Frankie” Reilly, Team SOCOM
Staff Sgt. Patricia Reynolds, Team Marine Corps
Sgt. 1st Class David Iuli, Team Army
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