Military Wounded Get Back Into Action in Sports Summit at San Diego Hospital
For Anthony Smith, athletics is a way to return to how he felt before he lost his right arm to a rocket-propelled grenade attack by insurgents in Iraq.
“I feel strong again; I feel my confidence building back up,” said Smith, 39, a retired Army major. He took part last week in a spirited game of volleyball in which the players, nearly all of whom had lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan, sat on the floor during the action.
Smith, ever the officer, also acted as cheerleader: “Come on, let’s do it,” he urged younger players, while smashing the ball over the net with gusto. Occasionally, he stopped to do a few push-ups, balancing his weight on the hook at the end of his prosthetic arm, which has a fabric cover with an American flag design.
Smith and four dozen other wounded military personnel were spending four days at the San Diego Naval Medical Center for the Paralympic Military Summit, which ends today.
The summit, a term taken from mountain climbing, not politics, is part of the military’s effort to treat wounded personnel as elite athletes who have suffered a setback but need not abandon their love of sports.
Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Myers, 22, was playing wheelchair volleyball on an adjoining court in the gymnasium. His injury was more recent and he was more tentative, less self-assured than Smith.
Still, Myers knows that sports is a key part of his uncertain road to recovery. The native Texan lost both legs above the knee when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.
Like Smith, he is undergoing rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He’d like to get back to weightlifting, his sport of choice before being injured.
“I’m progressing, but I’ve got a long way to go,” Myers said. “I’m not sure about the future. I have to figure out where my heart is. But I know I want to be active.”
The summit brings together wounded personnel with coaches and rehabilitation specialists for training sessions and competition, as well as the friendship that grows from common experience.
“You have to realize that while your lifestyle has changed, the principle of your life is the same: You can compete and you can enjoy life,” said sailor Manuel Del Rio, 20, of Van Nuys, whose leg was severed in an accident aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.
As the Balboa Park medical center expands to include more services for the war-wounded, particularly amputees, its Balboa Warrior Athlete Program is a major part of the effort. More medical personnel have been added to the staff, and a planned $7-million renovation is expected to improve therapy facilities.
The goal is to ensure that West Coast military personnel can receive rehabilitation services in San Diego, rather than be sent to San Antonio or to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., away from their families.
A fourth of the Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen injured in Iraq and Afghanistan come from either homes or duty stations on the West Coast, military medical officials say.
“It’s important for the new patients, particularly the amputees, to try things that they haven’t tried before,” said Navy Capt. Kathy Goldberg, a physician and head of physical and occupational therapy at the San Diego center.
The summit has included swimming, volleyball, archery, aerobics, and track and field events, using facilities at the medical center, the 32nd Street Naval Station and the U.S. Olympic Committee training camp in nearby Chula Vista.
Army Spec. Brandon Dale, 22, who used to play basketball in his native Shreveport, La., particularly likes the camaraderie of competition. His left leg was severed above the knee, and his right leg suffered severe nerve damage in a roadside bomb attack.
“Just being around other guys doing sports feels good,” he said.
Travel expenses were picked up by the Paralympic Military Program of the U.S. Olympic Committee, a co-sponsor along with the Navy. Housing has been at a Navy base.
“We want them to know there is life after injury,” said Beth Bourgeois, an official with the U.S. Paralympic Team.
Now in its second year, the summit program involves two gatherings annually. This next one is scheduled for November in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Among the volleyball players was Navy corpsman Nathaniel Leoncio, 24, of Temecula, who lost his right leg in a roadside bomb attack. He ignored his own injuries and continued to treat wounded comrades, dedication that resulted in a Bronze Star for bravery.
“It just feels great to be active,” he said.