When Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal KC Higer started recovery for the loss of his right hand, he couldn’t have anticipated that it would be the catalyst to competing as the youngest athlete at the Invictus Games earlier this year.
At age 20, Higer not only competed for the U.S., but he also medaled.
The Invictus Games, an international adaptive multi-sport event for wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans, took place April 16-22 in The Hauge, Netherlands, after being postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July 2020, Higer lost his right hand due in an accident while working on a vehicle at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
On August 18, 2020, he was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland to continue his recovery. This is where he was introduced to the Warrior Care Military Adaptive Sports Program and the Marine Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment’s Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program.
MASP and WAR-P provide reconditioning activities and competitive athletic opportunities to wounded, ill, and injured service members to improve their physical and mental quality of life throughout the continuum of recovery and transition. Higer said the programs “just introduced me into a very wide variety of sports that I couldn't get into [before].”
Higer’s involvement with MASP and WAR-P led him to realize that he can perform at a competitive level in certain sports, such as rowing and powerlifting.
After participating in the virtual Department of Defense Warrior Games in 2021 and being screened to possibly compete on an international level, Higer was asked if he wanted to be a part of Team U.S. for the Invictus Games. He said his response was, “Hell yeah… I’m down for it.”
Higer competed in rowing where he won a gold medal in the one-minute event and a silver in the four-minute event in his category. He also competed in powerlifting and swimming and was honored to be selected to represent Team U.S. for one of the special Unconquered teams, “which is kind of like a jambalaya of all these countries for the sitting volleyball. … So, I got to be with, Team Ukraine on that one and Team Germany and Team Italy as well,” Higer said.
“We only won one game, but we had a good time,” shared Higer. He expressed that working with athletes from other countries “was pretty cool.” Though there was a bit of a language barrier, Higer said they were able to communicate through translators and a few athletes who spoke English.
Higer truly enjoyed representing his country and being in the Invictus environment with the other athletes from around the world.
“Everybody was very positive, very welcoming to the other countries. … I'm pretty sure I met somebody from all 20 countries that were there," he said. "It was a life changing event. You get to meet all these really cool people from all around the world and you really get to see there still is good in this world."
Higer said the most important thing he took away from his experience at the Invictus Games is that “we're all human beings, no matter what. Whether you're broken or able-bodied, we're all just human beings.”
Preparation for the Games & Life
After Higer found out that he was selected for the Invictus Games, he was up at 4 a.m., six days a week, to train right up until a few days before attending the Team U.S. training camp at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
He said MASP and WAR-P were integral in helping him get selected and prepare for the games. The coaches who helped him the most were Patrick L. Johnson, coordinator for Adaptive Reconditioning & Sports, MASP, WRNMMC; and LJuca “LJ” Belsito, the Marine Corps powerlifting coach at WRNMMC. Johnson was Higer’s rowing coach and Belsito was his coach for powerlifting.
“They were the two biggest influences on my training and stuff like that," said Higer. "And they both have been very big influences on my life post injury and kind of helped along the way in the track and pathway of recovery."
MASP afforded Higer the opportunity and exposure to explore an array of different sports from wheelchair rugby to whitewater kayaking.
“I love archery. It's really fun," he said. "It's relaxing; it's not aerobic by any means. Especially if you do it on an outdoor range, you just sit there and breathe in fresh air and, you know, it's just you and the elements. You just really get to focus in on that target."
Higer’s experience with MASP and WAR-P has also impacted other areas of his life.
“One thing that it has helped out with in a very physical aspect is this [referring to his residual limb] used to be very sensitive. I used to be very cautious with it when I first had my injury and with the MASP and WAR-P program, you know, it's kind of gotten to the point where it's desensitized,” Higer said.
“It's also kind of helped me in a mental aspect of like, it's not there; it's not coming back. So, we may as well just get used to it, get used to using it the way that we can," he said.
"Starting on this journey, you may not start off in a dark place, but you are going to get to a pretty dark place at some point in time; it’s pretty much guaranteed. WAR-P helped me get through that dark place and helped me recover. And here we are.”
Higer has come to think fondly of his residual limb. He affectionately calls it Nemo, because “it’s my special little fin,” Higer said.
After introducing Nemo to his fellow athletes at the Invictus Games, he decided to get a “Hello, I’m Nemo” tattoo above the limb to make introductions easier.
“It's pretty cool. It's a goofy tattoo,” Higer said with a smile.
When Higer is exercising or performing mechanic work, he uses both myoelectric and body-powered prostheses.
Body-powered prostheses are controlled with the power of an individual's residual limb, shoulder girdle, and upper-body muscles. A myoelectric prosthetic device is operated by battery-powered electric motors that are activated through electrodes by the myoelectric potentials provided by muscles.
“I've kind of gotten to the point where, whenever I get back in the civilian world and get back to working, I will wear for work just because welding and being a mechanic is kind of hard without a prosthesis," he said. "But for the most part, like day-to-day life, I kind of just got it figured out with old Nemo here.”
At the end of June, Higer gained his official veteran status. He plans to return to his home state of Nebraska with his wife and go to school to pursue specialty certifications to become a mechanic and perform performance diesel fabrication.
Though he's leaving Walter Reed, he is not leaving MASP or WAR-P behind. He also hopes to get invited to the Invictus Games next year in Düsseldorf, Germany, and will be competing in the upcoming 2022 DOD Warrior Games in Orlando, Florida, from August 19-28.
Higer will be competing in rowing, powerlifting, wheelchair rugby, sitting volleyball, air rifle, and archery.
“All I got to say is tune into Warrior Games 2022,” he said.
For more information on Warrior Care programs, MASP, and WAR-P, visit the Warrior Care site.