Sports Programs Help Disabled Veterans
JACKSON’S GAP, Ala. (AP) _ Army Pfc. Joshua Stein grew up in the water, swimming, diving and spearfishing at his native island of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. Now, however, Stein is learning to water ski without his legs, which were blown off when a roadside bomb hit the Bradley fighting vehicle he was driving.
With help, Stein straps his scarred body into a cradle fitted on a single, wide ski. Then, he grasps the tow rope with a right arm covered with skin grafts and rises out of the water, grinning and giving a thumbs-up with his mangled left arm, as the boat roars away.
Similar military and civilian outdoor programs have quietly sprung up nationwide for permanently disabled vets like Stein, using the challenges and sheer fun of recreation to help them get past the pain and move them toward resuming their lives.
Last weekend, 25 disabled veterans were at Lake Martin in rural east Alabama for Operation Adventure, a sports program put on by the Birmingham-based Lakeshore Foundation at Camp ASCCA. The Easter Seals camp draws more than 10,000 disabled children and adults annually.
Like Operation Adventure, many of these efforts to help severely injured vets are sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project, a partnership between Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Project. The program is in 25 states and growing.
Outdoor sports programs are an important bridge for disabled veterans trying to move on to a new phase of life, says Kirk Bauer, the executive director of Disabled Sports USA.
His organization, funded mainly by private donations, works with amputees from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
``These young men and women are used to challenge. They’re literally trained to take cities ... and they’ve hit the ground. Sometimes they can’t even move,″ Bauer said. ``What they need is a hope that it can get better and the reality that it will get better.″
About 21,400 U.S. servicemen and women have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Pentagon figures show nearly 9,800 were hurt badly enough that they couldn’t return to duty within three days. Hundreds, like Stein, are permanently disabled.
Marine Cpl. Hector Delgado, 27, manned a .50-caliber machine gun protecting military convoys in Iraq until a fuel truck collapsed on him, crushing his pelvis and legs. He now uses a wheelchair and works at a Veterans Affairs counseling center in New York City, near his home on Long Island.
Delgado stayed with his parents after getting back home, unsure of what he could do. ``It took me awhile to realize I still had a life,″ he said.
He eventually joined a wheelchair softball league and participated in a sports program for vets in New York. In Alabama, he tried shooting skeet with a .12-gauge shotgun and found out it was a lot different from the M-16 he carried in Iraq.
``An M-16 is like shooting an air rifle. There’s hardly any kick. That has a lot more,″ Delgado said.
Retired Army Maj. Anthony Smith can still walk, but it’s not easy since a rocket-propelled grenade struck him in the right hip, taking off his right arm and tearing open his abdomen in April 2004 near Baghdad. He uses a crutch and tires easily, and has had 72 major operations and less-serious surgical procedures.
But at Operation Adventure, he sweated and grunted while pulling himself up a climbing wall.
Quitting was never an option because his 13-year-old son, Anthony Jr., was watching.
``I’m tired as hell,″ said Smith, of Columbus, Miss. ``But I did it.″
Josh Stein, learning to walk on short prosthetic limbs, said he couldn’t even think about his future until he talked with other soldiers who lost limbs in the war.
``I was 6-1, and now I’m Tattoo on `Fantasy Island,‴ he joked.
He wants to become a counselor and help other wounded vets, but the father of two daughters _ ages 3 and 1 1/2 months _ also has plans that involve each of his girls.
``I want to get to the point where I can hold my daughter’s hand and walk her to class,″ he said. ``I want to be able to walk her down the aisle.″
On the Net:
Disabled Sports USA: http://www.dsusa.org/