Wounded Wisconsin veterans participate in adaptive sports
By GRETCHEN BROWN
Nov. 27, 2017
MILWAUKEE (AP) — James Veltri struggled to cope after becoming paralyzed.
"I viewed myself as less than," he told Wisconsin Public Radio . "That I can't do the same things I used to do that I used to love to do."
Veltri, a Navy veteran, had been discharged from active duty in 2003 after developing Type 1 diabetes. He enrolled in college, but was shot and paralyzed in 2005 while breaking up a fight.
One of the biggest hurdles was finding something challenging that he could devote his life to.
He had always been involved in sports growing up, playing football and soccer, and running track. Becoming active again changed things for Veltri.
When he tried wheelchair adaptive sports around 2009, something clicked.
Veltri, 35, is now a member of the Milwaukee Eagles wheelchair lacrosse team — one of the top teams of its kind in the nation and run through the Wisconsin Adaptive Sports Association. He helped build the team back in 2014.
He's humble about it.
"We're definitely on the map," he said.
Though the team is competitive, it has a dual focus, said Dr. Kenneth Lee, a founding member of the team that began in 2015 and is open to all people age 14 and up.
"We're looking at it as rehab as well, post-hospitalization rehab back in the community. This gives them an avenue to shoot for every year," said Lee, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, medical director for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and president of the Board of WASA.
Lee, 52, leads the lacrosse team as a veteran himself who was injured in combat. Lee was injured in a car bombing in 2004 while stationed in Baghdad as a commander of a Wisconsin Army National Guard medical battalion. He suffered multiple injuries, including brain trauma, nerve damage and shrapnel injuries that lead to five major surgeries and a long road to recovery.
After his injury, he went through some of the same challenges Veltri did.
Then, Lee started running again in 2007.
"I realized then, sports are within my DNA. It's in every human's DNA," Lee said. "So why don't I use that as a focal point for a lot of our vets who are struggling with the same problems and see if I can use sports to get them back into their life?"
It's not just the physical activity that helps. Team sports can give injured veterans a group of people they can count on. A group to hold them accountable and lift them up.
"These guys kind of feed off each other, especially if they're still depressed or think they can't do anything like this," Lee said. "The other guys will come over and say, 'Yes you can, look what I can do.'"
That support compounds into something good, Lee said, for vets struggling with mental health after returning home with severe injuries.
"It will actually activate your mind and your body, and it just makes you go," Lee said. "This is one of the best rehab or therapy there is."
"It's a community of camaraderie," he said. "If I have a challenge, just a regular life problem, I can talk to these guys."
Adaptive sports aren't just big in Milwaukee. Hundreds of veterans compete each year at the National Veteran's Wheelchair Games, the largest annually occurring wheelchair sporting event in the world, Lee said.
There are 19 different events, from bocce ball, to basketball, to swimming. Nationally, rehabilitation is the focus. But fun is had along the way.
Adaptive sports, Veltri said, helped him overcome an opioid addiction. He is now working toward a college degree.
He said sports have made him more confident, and helped him out in every aspect of his life.
"It's given me hope. It's given me a lot of hope," he said.
Information from: Wisconsin Public Radio, http://www.wpr.org