By Sarah Bartnick, WTC Stratcom
Of all the people who influenced MAJ John Arbino during his recovery at the Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Unit (WTU), one late-night talk with fellow Soldiers may have had the biggest impact. “There were four of us, all in wheelchairs,” said the career Soldier who was first diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 2009. “And we were all struggling with our identities. Who were we now? Were we still the people we were before?”
After that conversation, Arbino went back to his room and parked his wheelchair in its usual spot. The lifelong athlete started wondering what hobbies he could start, but he was frustrated that he’d only be able to enjoy stationary hobbies. “I didn’t want to do puzzles,” he said, “I didn’t want to be the old guy in the commissary with a walker.”
The harsh hospital room light shone on his new blue electric wheelchair, his racing chair and his hand cycle. The answer was clear: he was still MAJ John Arbino. There was still a lot he could do.
“Adaptive sports saved me,” he said. “It gave me a whole new outlook, a new way to redefine who I am.”
It wasn’t long before Arbino started participating in the Fort Belvoir adaptive reconditioning program and attended the Warrior Transition Command Warrior Games training and selection clinics. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said, “and wheelchair racing was the hardest sport I’ve ever tried.”
Arbino explained that the motion of pushing a racing chair is very different from a regular everyday wheelchair. For an everyday chair, you grab the wheel at the top and push relatively gently, just enough momentum to keep you going at a walking speed. With a racing chair, you grab the wheel toward the bottom and push with as much force as you can, since the races are usually sprints.
Arbino explained that most Soldiers start doing wheelies once they get comfortable in a regular wheelchair. That doesn’t quite work with a racing chair, and you can tell a new racer as the one tipped over on the track.
“It happens to all the new guys,” Arbino laughed. “We call it turtling, because you’re stuck looking up at the sky until someone tips you back up. At the last clinic, when I should have had enough experience, but I was laughing so hard I flipped over twice in a row. The coaches thought I’d hurt myself.”
“See, you’re hunched over with your knees at your chest,” he explained, “Your center of gravity is way back.”
After the selection clinic, he started training in a borrowed chair. “I’d go up to the top floor of the parking garage and get in a few miles going back and forth,” he said. And his face lit up when he explained that people would stop him and tell him how much he’d inspired them.
After more than 20 years as a Soldier, Arbino will retire with honor just two weeks after Warrior Games.
“I couldn’t have a better last mission,” he said, his face beaming with pride. “The Warrior Games is almost my retirement ceremony. As a Soldier, you’re always representing the Army, but as one of hundreds or one of thousands. Representing the Army as one of 50 is special.”