Warrior Games aim to help wounded military personnel get back in action

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jacque Keeslar had both legs blown off when the Stryker vehicle in which he was manning a .50-caliber machine gun hit a roadside bomb in Rawah, Iraq, in June 2006.

Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Cheramie lost his left leg below the knee when he stepped on a bomb while on patrol in Now Zad, Afghanistan, in December 2008.

Keeslar and Cheramie were athletes before their wounds and now both are part of a military program that uses competitive sports as a means to overcome the physical and psychological trauma of combat wounds.

On Monday, the two were among 200 injured or ill military personnel — most of them wounded in combat — participating in the inaugural Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The weeklong games are a joint venture between the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Department of Defense, with support from the USO and several corporations such as the Deloitte accounting and consulting firm. Organizers hope it will become an annual event.

Keeslar, 40, will compete in swimming events, shotput and wheelchair basketball. Cheramie, 21, is set to swim the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and 50-meter breast stroke.

Cheramie has been a patient at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Keeslar is a platoon sergeant at the barracks for wounded and injured personnel receiving therapy at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, which is sending 10 athletes (one sailor, seven soldiers, two Marines) to the games.

Both centers specialize in the use of prosthetics and in guiding personnel back to active lifestyles through sports. In San Diego, the center has classes in archery, scuba diving, rock-climbing, volleyball, kayaking, surfing and more.

“It’s that competitive thing,” Keeslar said. “It’s very healing.”

Cheramie said he hopes to serve as a role model for other military personnel.

“I want to show them it’s not over just because you’ve been injured,” Cheramie said in a telephone interview. “Everybody goes through that ‘I’m ugly, nobody will love me, I’m stuck in a wheelchair’ depression. You have to move on.”

Five wounded personnel — one each from the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard — carried the symbolic torch into the arena in Colorado Springs on Monday, where it was handed to Roger Staubach, a Naval Academy graduate and NFL Hall of Famer.

Charlie Huebner, who coordinates the Paralympic program for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the Warrior Games is an outgrowth of the committee’s support for local programs helping wounded and injured military personnel and veterans.

“We want to make sure that these young men and women continue to participate and re-engage in life,” Huebner said.

The Paralympic program is open to civilians as well as military personnel. Warrior Games is strictly for the military, including personnel with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Keeslar, a former high school football player from Big Bear Lake, has run in marathons and semi-marathons since his injury. In November, he’ll retire after 20 years’ service and move to Fallbrook with his wife, Vanessa.

“I always tell people that losing my legs was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me,” Keeslar said. “It gave me a new outlook on life.... It showed me how patriotic people are, that there are so many people willing to help the wounded veterans.”

Cheramie will soon leave active duty and plans to study biology at Louisiana State University. When he goes to college, he’s determined to bring along a gold medal from Colorado Springs.

“We all love competition — that’s what it’s all about,” he said.