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Wounded warriors stay in the game - Competition engages spirits; network of support warms hearts

Recently wounded combat troops are getting advice and encouragement from those who understand best what they’re up against: other disabled veterans who have learned to live with their disabilities.

Veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five current patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, are among about 500 participants in the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The event, cosponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, is open to all veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other conditions that impair mobility.

For Mitch Bocik, an Army reservist wounded when an improvised explosive device hit his vehicle just south of Baghdad in May 2006, the games offer a chance to recapture his love of competition. The competition was only days old, when he’d already collected a silver medal in slalom and a bronze in nine-ball pool, and he had his sights on a silver or gold in basketball.

But beyond the thrill of victory, Bocik said, the biggest takeaway from the games is the chance to get motivated by what other disabled veterans have accomplished. “That’s the main thing,” he said. “It’s helped me realize that I can pretty much do everything I used to do. I just do it differently.”

Army Spc. Darrell Lawrence was back from his deployment for just over five months when a motorcycle accident at Fort Campbell, Ky., put him in a wheelchair. Two years later, he’s medically retired and back for his second summer games, where he’s already won two gold medals, in air rifles and slalom.

Lawrence called winning sports competitions “a big boost to morale,” but agreed that getting to meet and learn from with other disabled veterans is the event’s biggest draw.

“I’ve seen so much and learned so much talking to these guys,” he said. “You can get a wealth of knowledge as they show you things that you thought weren’t possible before.”

Like Lawrence, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Felder was injured in a motorcycle accident, losing his left leg after returning from a Middle East deployment in 2006. Still assigned to the patient squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., he has received approval to remain in the Air Force as an F-15 crew chief.

Felder said he loves the competition of the games, which he calls “downright fun,” but said he’s found inspiration here, too.

“It’s great being around people in similar situations and be able to share stories and network,” he said. “Everybody wants to win. But being around here and getting to learn from each other is inspirational.”

Among those offering that inspiration is Charles Allen, who was injured during a 1993 training accident at Fort Hood, Texas. Allen, now 36, called the games an opportunity to share what he’s gained during the past 15 years. “The older guys taught me when I was new,” he said. “Now it’s time for me to help steer someone else in the right direction.”

Like many of the newly wounded troops, Allen said, he went through tough times as he adjusted to the physical and mental challenges of being confined to a wheelchair. He credits his introduction to wheelchair basketball as a big step in his rehabilitation.

“Life is not over because you are injured,” he said. “It might not be the life you had planned, but it can also be a new beginning, like being reborn.”

Kevin Poindexter, a Navy petty officer 3rd class who was medically retired after being shot in the back during a carjacking attempt, said the wheelchair games offer more than an opportunity to chalk up medals.

Even more valuable, he said, is the opportunity to meet and encourage veterans with new injuries. “I like to be able to give back what I’ve learned during the past 13 years,” said Poindexter, who now lives in Tampa, Fla. “If we can get these guys out here and show them what people just like them are able to do, it can help them a lot.”

Tourgee Bryant, a former Marine corporal paralyzed 19 years ago when he fell asleep at the wheel and his car hit a tree, said he’s excited to be able to help motivate newly disabled veterans. “We’ve got to let them know that there are still opportunities for them to do things. They just have to go out there and try,” he said.

As he sat in his chair watching a high-action basketball playoff, Bryant found himself cheering wildly for his fellow veterans, especially the younger ones.

“You can’t help but yell for them,” he said. “That’s what the spirit of the games is all about.”

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