Continuing the well-deserved praise and recognition of wounded warrior athletes, representatives from each Service’s Warrior Games team attended a special ceremony yesterday hosted by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Held in the Pentagon courtyard, the ceremony also included remarks from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, as well as Mr. Charlie Huebner, Chief of the US Paralympics. Mr. John Campbell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Warrior Care Policy was also in attendance.
“Celebrations like this are truly inspirational as we recognize the dedication and sacrifice that our wounded, ill and injured Service members have made. I’m proud to be here,” Mr. Campbell said at the beginning of the event.
For Navy/Coast Guard team member, Melanie Monts De Oca, a special ceremony with the Secretary of Defense shows just how far the Warrior Games has progressed. Melanie, who has competed in swimming and shot-put since the Games began three years ago, broke her hip and back in a snow mobile accident. She was also diagnosed with a heart condition that led to two strokes, and recently found out she has a connective tissue disorder and degenerative joint disease. Adaptive sports have helped sustain her both physically and mentally as she’s come to terms with her various diagnoses.
“Emotionally, knowing that at least I have that to go back to is great,” she said. “Without that I would be sitting on my couch, doing nothing, feeling bad about myself. This has opened up a lot of doors for me.”
Linda Simpson, a Navy reservist who competed in the Warrior Games for the first time this year, was introduced to adaptive sports and the Warrior Games while she was still in the hospital recovering from the loss of her leg due to a motorcycle accident.
“It gave me something right away to focus on,” Linda said. “It enabled me to have a goal right away and to work towards that goal.”
Less than a year after her injury, Linda won four gold medals, competing in shot-put and swimming.
Marine Corps team member Manuel Jimenez also used the Warrior Games to distract him from his injuries, which include the loss of hearing in his left ear and an above-the-elbow amputation.
“It keeps you away from thinking about your injuries, things you can’t do, and focuses you on things you can do,” he said.
In his remarks, Gen. Odierno recognized this “unprecedented drive and talent” of warrior athletes, and reminded them that they can also be examples to inspire and motivate others.
Mr. Huebner also emphasized that, though competition is healthy and fun, the real power of the Warrior Games is that wounded warriors can return to their homes and communities and participate in athletics with their friends and family.
“In three years we have created something pretty powerful,” he said.
Christopher Aguilera, an Air Force team member, was hesitant to participate in the Warrior Games at first because he worried they would label him as “disabled,” but after his first year of competition he feels the power of the Games as well. After suffering multiple injuries in a helicopter crash during a combat rescue—“I broke pretty much everything in my body,” he said—Christopher didn’t even know if he would ever walk again. But the Warrior Games gave him something to focus on besides surgeries and he claimed four bronze medals this year.
“It helps you realize you might not be your old 100% but you have a new 100%,” he said.
Secretary Panetta also commended the warrior athletes, and recognized the great accomplishments they have made in embracing their new normal.
“I cannot tell you how much you inspire us,” he said. “Nothing, absolutely nothing, will stop you.”
Secretary Panetta cited as an example Navy/Coast Guard team member Brad Snyder, who lost his eyesight when an improvised explosive device detonated in front of him. After winning seven gold medals at the 2012 Warrior Games in track and swimming, Brad went on to the Paralympic swimming trials where he set a new world record for visually impaired athletes in the 100 meter and 400 meter freestyle. He will compete in London on September 7, 2012, one year to the day of his injury.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who competed on the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) team, is also not letting anything stop him, or even slow him down. Del Toro was severely burned— third degree burns over 80 percent of his body—when his vehicle drove over a roadside bomb during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2005. In 2010, after enduring more than 100 surgeries, he was a trail blazer as the first 100 percent combat disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist.
“I want to make it better for the guys who follow me,” he said. “I’ll be the Guinea pig.”
He continues to serve as an instructor and recruiter for Tactical Air Control Party students. He is also eager for next week when he tries out for the Paralympic Games in field events. He ranks number one in shot-put, discus and javelin in his classification, even breaking records in the javelin.
“I have trained for a year and a half for the Paralympics,” he said. “I am proud of myself to make it this far and even if I don’t make the team this year, in a couple more years I’ll be ready to be on the team next time.”
He encourages wounded, ill and injured Service members to participate in the Warrior Games, saying it allows them to branch out and get physical again.
“Meet other people, make connections and share knowledge,” he said. “It is a great opportunity physically, mentally, and also career-wise.”
Another athlete in attendance, Army Spc. Elizabeth Wasil, hopes to return to duty and continue participation in competitive sports.
Wasil sustained severe bilateral hip injuries while serving in Iraq as a combat medic in 2010, but hopes to continue to serve as a combat medic after her recovery. She is attached to the Fort Sam Houston Warrior Transition Battalion, Bravo Company, where she has undergone three surgeries to regain mobility. After her most recent surgery in November 2011, another recovering Soldier told her about the Warrior Games and she competed to make the Army team for swimming and handcycling.
“Warrior Games provides support and motivation even when you have difficulty finding it yourself,” she said. “I was grateful to be considered. It was an outstanding experience and I am humbled by these amazing athletes and good people.”
Even though Wasil medaled in all three of her swimming events (gold, silver and bronze), she believes doing well in the handcycling event as the only female to participate was the most rewarding. She hopes to continue her participation in athletics through the Army World Class Athlete Program and next year’s Warrior Games.
In closing his remarks, Secretary Panetta said it all when he concluded, “The will, the sheer guts to overcome, the determination to return to a new normal is not just inspiring. It’s nothing short of a miracle. A miracle.”
Please visit facebook.com/warriorcare for more photos of the event.