2012 Warrior Games Opening Ceremony Honors Spirit of Athletes

Mrs. Michelle Obama shares a moment with the 2012 Warrior Games’ torch bearers, British Royal Marine Captain Simon Maxwell and retired Army 1LT Melissa Stockwell, on April 30, at the Olympic Training Center. (Photo by U.S. Army SSG Tracy J. Smith)

By SSG Tracy J. Smith, Fort Stewart Warrior Transition Unit
Mrs. Michelle Obama led the opening ceremony for the third annual Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on April 30.

The Warrior Games is comprised of seven sports; archery, cycling, sitting volleyball, shooting, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball. More than 200 wounded, ill, or injured servicemembers from each branch of service and the U.S. Special Operations Command are competing. The games began with the opening ceremony and continue until May 5.

The ceremony celebrated the resilience of our nation’s wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers,  active duty, reservists, guardsmen, and Veterans  from all branches of military service. This year for the first time, our British allies brought 20-members to compete in exhibition games.

Mrs. Obama and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN Martin E. Dempsey, applauded the competitors for their courage and for being inspirations.

“Every competitor here has faced adversity that most of us can never imagine,” Mrs. Obama said. “No matter how seriously you are injured, no matter what obstacles or setbacks you face, you just keep moving forward.”

Dempsey commended the service men and women for not succumbing to perceived disabilities.

“For me, these games embody the enduring resilience of our profession,” said Dempsey. “Your commitment to teamwork, and dedication to persevere at these games are the very same qualities that led you to serve our nation. Those qualities don’t go away.”

Retired Army 1LT and 2006 Beijing Paralympian, Melissa Stockwell, gives a celebratory fist pump after lighting the cauldron opening the 2012 Warrior Games at the Olympic Games Center.

Captain Simon Maxwell of the British Royal Marines and retired Army 1LT Melissa Stockwell shared the honor as torchbearers for the opening ceremony.  She was the first female Soldier to lose a limb in Iraq. Stockwell was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for the loss of her leg in 2004 by an insurgent’s bomb.  Maxwell was deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan in April 2011 where he served as a troop commander with Company L. He was wounded in August 2011, while on patrol resulting in the loss of his left leg below the knee.

Both adamantly profess finding a renewed sense of purpose because of their experiences. Stockwell uncovered her Olympian spirit during her rehabilitation at Walter Reed and represented her country in a different uniform during the 2008 Beijing Paralympics swim competition.

Other key speakers on hand to open the ceremony were Scott Blackmun, the U.S. Olympic Committee CEO, and Robin Lineberger, the Deloitte Federal Systems CEO.

The ceremony ended with the playing of each service song and a VIP reception for the athletes and Family members at the Olympic Training Center.

All of the athletic events are being held at the U.S. Air Force Academy, with the exception of shooting, which will take place at the training center.

Turning Disability into Ability at the Warrior Games

By Caitlin McCarrie, WTC STRATCOM
This is my first time at the Warrior Games, and I am taking in this experience with wide eyes and enthusiasm. The Opening Ceremony at the U.S Olympic Training Center kicked off the week’s events. Before the ceremony, the athletes, coaches, and staff gathered and calmed their nerves in preparation for the week ahead.

As I looked around the room, I saw the athletes get in their zone. U.S. Army archery coach Steven Coleman looked for his team and pointed out that each competitor focuses their energy in different ways, whether it be listening to their iPod, playing cards with teammates, or talking with their coach. I could feel their energy, and it was positively invigorating.

We made our way to the Opening Ceremony, and watching the competitors from all service branches make their way through the crowd was truly inspiring. Amid the friendly banter between the services there was an overarching sense of pride and gratitude. Soldiers of all backgrounds walked the same walk.  I’ve heard the phrase, “overcoming disability with ability” before, but it wasn’t until that moment when I saw these men and women walking toward the ceremony together that I really understood the power of those words.

One of the most exciting parts for me was listening to the VIP speakers, such as Mrs. Michelle Obama and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army GEN Martin Dempsey. Watching these prominent men and women address the sea of wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers and Family members I felt a deep sense of gratefulness and respect. That sentiment swept over the crowd, and at that moment the crowd shared a sense of unity that I’ve never experienced before.

Mrs. Obama praised the athletes, “I get to see your strength and determination up close, and you tell me you’re not just going to walk again, but you’re going to run, and you’re going to run marathons.”

After the opening remarks, I joined the Army athletes, coaches, and staff for some words of inspiration for the week ahead. LTG Patricia Horoho, the Army Surgeon General, had some special words of encouragement for the room. “You have been through the toughest situations, and now you have to focus mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You have already shown you are capable of turning disability into ability, and this is one more step forward.” I watched as the athletes listened attentively, and I could feel their intensity and excitement.

The passion and determination in the eyes of these athletes is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Their hard work and dedication to training, whether it was in the WTC’s adaptive sports clinics throughout the year or on their own is about to pay off, and I’m excited to see the Army bring home the gold. LTG Horoho gave one last note which sums up the Army’s presence at the Warrior Games. “It’s the warriors’ ethos that will bond this team to victory.”

U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Trains Army Warrior Games Athletes

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC STRATCOM

SFC Tom Rose, assigned to the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, pictured left, teaches AW2 Veteran Justin Miller additional pistol techniques. Miller is competing in the Warrior Games shooting event on May 3.

The Army Warrior Games shooting team is capitalizing on its extra advantage — the United States Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU).

 “I think a lot of the athletes are going to do very well,” said SFC Janet Sokolowski, the USAMU platoon sergeant for the cross-functional pistol. “The training clinics they went to before the games were really helpful.”

 The USAMU is a world-class shooting team composed of Soldiers. They are considered the best of the best and have gained worldwide respect by winning hundreds of individual and team competitions, including World Championships and Olympic medals.

 “We’ve helped the Army shooting team every year for Warrior Games,” Sokolowski said. “It takes a lot of skill, but several of the athletes are open to learning.”

 “Matter of fact the team we have here has lots of experience and love doing this,” she said about the other members who are putting their experience to helping the Army Warrior Games shooting team to bring home gold.

 The Warrior Games shooting competition consists of athletes accurately using either a pistol or rifle to fire a series of shots at a stationary target during a timed session.

 “I’m learning a lot,” said AW2 Veteran Justin Miller. “With the help of CPL Rawlings (an USAMU Soldier) and the techniques he taught me about the rifle helped me to dial in and take better aim.”

 “This training has been very productive,” Miller said. “I’m learning holding drills for the pistol which helps to stabilize the muscles.”

 Shooting maybe the USAMU main area of expertise, but competing is not their only skill. These Soldiers assist in technical development of military small arms equipment and ammunition. They translate their competitive marksmanship skills into useful combat marksmanship.

 “Once you’ve conditioned yourself to shooting, it becomes 90% mental,” Sokolowski said. “We’re extremely goal oriented.”

Athletes Inspire Athletes

 By LTC Danny Dudek, WTC G-3 Operations

LTC Daniel Dudek, WTC G-3 Operations, applied to be on the 2012 Warrior Games Army swimming team. Dudek is one of more than 25 other wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and Veterans who participated in the swimming clinic to earn a spot on the Army's 2012 Warrior Games swimming team. Photo credit: SSG Emily Anderson

I’m finally here.  After many months of preparation and hard work, I’m finally seeing how big Warrior Games really is.  It didn’t hit until I was on the track today with members of the Army team going through their workouts.   Air Force team athletes were on the other side of the track with the same determination and seriousness of our team.  I feel differently than when I was younger.  Then I wanted to crush everyone not wearing my uniform, now I want everyone to do well and excel and enjoy second place right behind me.  I’m glad to see so many service members overcoming the adversities that brought them here. 

The track at the Air Force Academy is incredible.  Those that know me probably wonder what I’m comparing it to since I’ve always avoided track work, but in Colorado Springs you get that sense that you can’t get much closer to nature.  The air is dry and sun is just warm enough to let you can still enjoy the cool breeze.  It was clear today and easy to get lost into the zone of pushing that racing wheelchair around the track and forgetting about all the people around me.  Of course the air took its toll on my ability to push my lungs as hard as I did at the Fort Belvoir track in Virginia, but that’s why we’re here a little early –  training to get ourselves in the best position to win. 

The pool is also an impressive venue, with plenty of deck space and stands to accommodate as many as you can expect to want to watch swimming.  I was surprised to feel the thin air affect me in the water as well. 
As I look around at all of the Army athletes, I feel lucky to be among such incredible people.  If you’re reading this, you probably already know one… but there are forty nine other athletes just as talented and just as driven to excel.  I plan to do everything I can these next few weeks to show I can earn a place among them.  Go Army!

Army and USA Volleyball Coaches Welcome Warrior Games Sitting Volleyball Hopefuls to UCO Clinic

Warrior Games Army athletes gathered for the WTC sitting volleyball clinic at the University of Central Oklahoma. Participants trained with USA Volleyball, U.S. Paralympic, and Army coaches to fine tune skills as they competed for final slots on the Army team.

By Erich Langer, WTC Stratcom
The Army’s 2012 Warrior Games sitting volleyball team has been determined. Twelve athletes made it through the selection process and competed over the last four months under the tutelage of Army, USA Volleyball, and U.S. Paralympic coaches.

Athletes trained together at the University of Central Oklahoma’s (UCO) Wellness Center in Edmond, Oklahoma and at a clinic hosted by Penn State University.

“We had a difficult time narrowing the field, but we believe we have the right talent and chemistry to move forward in fielding an Army team that will take gold at the 2012 Warrior Games,” said CPT David Vendt, Army sitting volleyball coach. “I can tell you one thing; our athletes will work their butts off. We will not get out hustled.”

The final team will represent the Army at the U.S. Olympic National Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 30 – May 5.
These finalists trained at UCO, a U.S. Paralympic training site, under the direction of Vendt and U.S. sitting volleyball athlete recruitment coordinator, Elliot Blake.  Blake worked with all of these athletes at previous clinics that also include some Soldiers from the Army team that took silver at the 2011 Warrior Games.

“Movement, movement, movement,” Blake found himself repeating throughout the first day’s practice. “You just can’t underestimate the importance of moving, anticipating the next shot, and where you need to be on the court. If you’re sitting still and watching, you’re going to get beat. It’s easy to be lazy in the gym but the effort to win is the responsibility of every player.”

Blake’s consistent message resonated with the Army athletes. It didn’t take long for each to realize that to play as a team they had to work together.

“We’re not playing a pickup game. You’re practicing and preparing to compete at Warrior Games. Pass the ball. Always be thinking of passing and setting up a teammate for the next shot,” continued Blake, who calmly provided instruction in between drills, scrimmage sessions, and even at water breaks, never missing an opportunity to impress the fundamentals on the players.

“Ok, I want everyone to start calling the ball, when you say ‘mine’ it lets your teammates know you’ve got it, then they can move into position for the next shot. Always think about positioning and being prepared for the follow up  shot,” Blake added.

Blake turned much of the UCO clinic sessions over to Vendt.

“We’re training each morning, taking a mid-day break, and then getting back after it,” said Vendt, an enthusiastic coach who volunteered for this gig after playing the game and setting up the Community-Based Warrior Transition Command (CBWTU) Virginia’s sitting volleyball program.

Vendt serves as the CBWTU-VA nurse case manager. In that capacity he assists Soldiers with employment, education, and transition opportunities.

“I really appreciate Master Sergeant Jongema and Lieutenant Colonel Williams from the Warrior Transition Command (WTC) Adaptive Reconditioning Branch for selecting me to lead this year’s Warrior Games sitting volleyball team,” said Vendt. “We’ve got a great bunch of Soldiers here, and I am committed to do my best to prepare them for the games.

“Working with Coach Blake, UCO, and the U.S. Paralympic folks has been so helpful, each is so knowledgeable,” Vendt added. “They really have embraced athletes and are committed to helping us prepare to be the best.”

Athletes Compete for a Spot on Army’s Warrior Games Cycling Team

SGT Julio Larrea rode a few laps around the parking lot of McGill Training Center, Fort Meade, Maryland, to prepare for a timed trial during the Warrior Transition Command’s final selection clinic.

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC Stratcom
The Warrior Transition Command final Warrior Games selection clinic held at Fort Meade, Maryland last week gave about 50 Soldiers and Veterans a chance to compete in four different sports for a spot on the Army team, but for several athletes this was their first chance to compete in the cycling event.

Athletes using an upright cycle are required to complete a distance of 30and athletes riding a recumbent cycle must complete a distance of 20 kilometers. Hand-crank cycles and all female cyclists, regardless of which cycle used, must complete 10 kilometers.

“I was going to do this last year, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to,” said SGT Julio Larrea, an AW2 Soldier assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.

Larreawas serving as an infantryman when he was injured when his left foot was crushed in a vehicle rollover during his deployment to Afghanistan in August 2010. His left leg was eventually amputated because of too much soft tissue damage and small reoccurring infections.

“It’s funny because before I deployed I told everyone I wanted to be home for my birthday. I didn’t want to spend another birthday deployed,” Julio said. “I was actually flown to Walter Reed on September 7, my birthday. I guess I got my wish.”

If selected, Larrea plans to take his postive attitude and determination to Warrior Games.

“No matter what I get tasked to do, I’ll do the best I can. Everything you do and everything you go through is you getting the job done,” Larrea said. “I don’t let things get me down too much. That’s just my personality.”

For some, going to Warrior Games is a chance at redemption from previous year’s competitions and Army athletes are determined to do their best.

“Last year the Marines had a stategy,” said SSG Kenny Griffith, who competed for the title of Ultimate Champion the first two years of Warrior Games and plans to compete again this year for the title.

Ultimate Champion is a Pentathlon-style format designed to pit Soldiers  against each other in a variety of disciplines. Points are earned in each discipline, and the athlete collecting the most points is crowned Ultimate Champion.

“I got blocked out by them in cycling last year because they had two cyclists take off at the start then the majority of them were at a decent speed, but I couldn’t get ahead of the pack because they had two cyclists at the back kind of blocking anyone from getting ahead,” said Griffith, a Soldier assigned to the Fort Hood WTU.

“This will probably be my last year competing in Warrior Games,” said Griffith. “Originally it was going to be last year, but I wanted to come back because I’m able to help with tactics and show people how to stay with the group.”

Throughout the clinic the cyclists gave it their all and motivated others who had never competed before to try cycling.

“Everyone worked pretty good together. They were close-knit, encouraging, and motivating.” SSG Mario Bilbrew, the Army’s Warrior Games cycling coach, said. “I’m confident we are going to do good at Warrior Games.”

The US Army Marksmanship Unit Paralympic Shooting Team is Expanding

By LTC Scott Wales, Guest Blogger

Editors Note: The expressed comments and views of guest bloggers do not reflect the views of WTC or the United States Army.

For many years, the face of the Army Paralympic shooting effort was SFC Josh Olson. Now, the Army Paralympic shooting team is authorized a dozen shooters to represent the United States in international competition and is in the final steps of adding two more shooters to the squad, with half a dozen more being vetted.

The two new additions to the team are SPC Shanan Lefeat, an arm amputee, and SPC Eric Trueblood, a below the knee amputee.  Lefeat was transferred to the Fort Benning Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) to train with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) while Human Resources Command finishes reviewing a medical board’s recommendation that she continue on active duty (COAD). This is a necessary step, because all USAMU members are Soldiers first, competitors second.

Trueblood is a little further back in the recovery and paperwork process, but he is representative of many young Soldiers who learn about the opportunities available for continued service. When asked to describe Trublood’s reaction when he heard about the Paralympic shooting team, long-time USAMU member SFC Bill Keever said, , “His eyes just lit up when he realized there was a way he could remain a Soldier and continue to serve his country.”

Keever continued, “When I visit Walter Reed or the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center, I explain to wounded Soldiers that they may no longer be on the battlefield, but the battle isn’t over. Their new battle can be against the competition on the shooting range.” For a young Soldier who has only seen an Army at war, where life has been a constant cycle of deploy and refit, deploy and refit, this is a revelation.

Keever noted, “When someone, anyone, lays down behind a rifle to competitively shoot, the focus required to do that task seems to block out any of the other issues they may be dealing with. Every Soldier comes to us with motivation and basic rifle marksmanship skills. We believe that with the coaching and other resources available at the USAMU we can take them as far as their talent will allow. It took three years for SFC Olson to reach world class level, but that entire time—and for years to come—he will represent the Army and the United States in a positive way.”

He summed up his recruiting efforts in this way, “I don’t hire people with disabilities. I hire people with ability. The USAMU is interested in people who are motivated and willing to train hard to represent their country as a world class athlete.”

The USAMU sends out representatives and training teams to work with wounded warriors on a regular basis. Those interested in competing at a high level in either the Paralympics or the upcoming Warrior Games in May are encouraged to make this known to their chain of command. More information on the USAMU is at www.usamu.com.

Army Warrior Games Archery Clinic Receives Overwhelming Support from the Sumter Community, Third Army/ARCENT

By LTC Jeanette Griffin, WTC Stratcom

More than 30 Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCO) assigned to Third Army decided to conduct their weekly staff meeting at the Sumter County State Fairgrounds, Sumter, South Carolina. After the meeting, several of the SNCOs and American Legion members posed for a photo and mingled with the more than 12 wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers during the Warrior Transition Command hosted Army archery clinic on March 12-16. Photo Credit: LTC JeanetteGriffin.

After more than five months of planning, organizing, and collaborating with the Sumter community and Third Army/ARCENT, 12 wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and Veterans traveled across the country to train and compete for places on the  Army Warrior Games team on March 12 -16 in Sumter, South Carolina.

The first archery selection clinic was conducted January 31- 5 February in Sumter, only the top eight archers from both recurve and compound bow competitions will earn a spot on the team.

“During the first clinic, 18 shooters came to Sumter with hopes of wearing the Army colors in this year’s Warrior Games,” said retired SFC Steven Coleman, the Warrior Games Army archery coach. “Of these 18, eight Soldiers were selected to return to the second clinic, and four more athletes were added to represent the Warrior Games Army archery team.”

These Soldiers are competing in hopes of being one of 50 athletes representing the Army during the 2012 Warrior Games starting next month in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“I feel that this clinic really helped me increase my ability to shoot as well as my mental ability to perform at a higher level,” said AW2 Veteran Jessie White. “The local community of Sumter has given amazing support while we were here.”

More than 12 wounded, ill and injured Soldiers and Veterans participated in The Warrior Transition Command's Army archery clinic on March 12-16. Third Army/ARCENT Medics and Combat Lifesavers assisted throughout the week. Photo Credit: (SSG Tracy J. Smith)

The list of supporters include American Legion Post 15, American  Whitetail, Coca-Cola, Crossroads Archery,  Dartfish, Elk’s Lodge, Gamecock Body Shop, Hansen International, emWave, and Third Army/ARCENT.

The offer of support to this effort began with the American Legion Post 15’s agreement to allow the Army archery participants to use the Agriculture Building located in the Sumter County Fairgrounds, in Sumter, South Carolina  for the first clinic held on January 31 to February 5, and the final qualification clinic that was conducted on March 12 -16.

U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Soldier (AW2) Curtis Winston prepares to shoot his recurve bow during training at the Warrior Transition Command (WTC) archery clinic in Sumter, South Carolina on March 12-16. The clinic, taught by U.S. Army Archery Coach and retired Sgt.1st Class Steven Coleman, prepared wounded, ill and injured Soldiers and veterans for this year’s Warrior Games, in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 30-May 5. Photo Credit: SSG Tracy Smith

“The American Legion served breakfast every morning, a few Legion members treated the team to a lunch, and the Ladies Auxiliary of the Legion cooked and served dinner,” said Coleman.

Since Third Army/ARCENT recently moved from Fort McPherson, Georgia  to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina,  Coleman’s dad, retired SGM Billy Coleman decided that they should visit Third Army/ARCENT to inform the organization that the Army archery clinic was scheduled to be held just a few miles from the base.

This meeting resulted in Stephenie Tatum, the Third Army/ARCENT media and community relations specialist, and SGM Fletcher the Third Army/ARCENT Public Affairs sergeant major and their team providing media support, committed military support, medics, and combat lifesavers during the clinic.

On Thursday, March 15, more than 30 Sergeants Majors and Directorate Chiefs assigned to Third Army/ARCENT conducted their weekly staff meeting at the Sumter State Fairgrounds.   After the meeting, several of the leaders posed for photos and mingled with the Soldiers and Veterans participating in the clinic extending words of encouragement and support.

“Overall, I felt that this was an excellent clinic,” said SGT Monica Southhall from CBWTU-Virginia. “I look forward to more clinics like this in the future.”

The archery clinic was an opportunity to get the community informed, involved, and excited about the Army’s archery team competing during the 2012 Warrior Games.  All the support provided by the Sumter community and Third Army/ARCENT was greatly appreciated and without a doubt, this was an outstanding clinic for everyone.

“Thanks to the outstanding support of the Sumter County community and several organizations, we have had two very successful clinics in Sumter County,” said Coleman.  “These organizations made it their mission to provide care and support for all of the Soldiers participating in the WTC archery clinics.”

Army athletes compete for spot on Warrior Games shooting team

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC Stratcom

SPC Justin Miller receives one-on-one training from MSG Howard Day, the Army’s Warrior Games shooting coach during the first Warrior Transition Command (WTC) shooting clinic held March 14-17 in El Paso, Texas. Photo Credit: SSG Emily Anderson

Holding a rifle was nothing new for these athletes concentrating on the targets in front, but the silence in the room spoke volumes. Today was not another weapon’s qualification day, and these were not just any Soldiers.

About 25 wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and Army Veterans from across the United States trained and competed for places on the Army Warrior Games shooting team during the WTC’s final shooting clinic at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, March  13 – 17.

“These athletes show a lot of promise,” said MSG Howard Day, the Army’s Warrior Games shooting coach. “We’ve seen dramatic improvements in their skill set from the clinic last month to now.”

Athletes from the Army, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations will compete for the gold in archery, cycling, wheelchair basketball, shooting, swimming, track and field, and sitting volleyball.

“Training for these games has helped me to stay motivated and positive in my rehab so that I can return to duty,” said SSG Vestor Hasson, currently assigned to the WTU at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.  “I’ve got a fair chance, and I’m going to do my best.”

The games are  April 30 – May 5, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  The official Army team will be announced in the March-April timeframe by representatives from WTC.

“This clinic has helped prepare myself for Warrior Games,” said AW2 Veteran Charles “Chuck” Allen. “It’s a mind game to stay focus and aim at the same spot every time because it doesn’t always hit the same spot.”

“I officially became a part of AW2 this year,” said Allen, who was medically retired after being shot during a training accident when another Soldier tried to clear his jammed weapon but misfired. The bullet entered the right side of Allen’s chest and stuck in his vertebrate, unable to be removed by doctors.

“If selected, I look forward to representing the Army,” Allen added. “Hopefully, I’ll be competing in the discus throw, shot put, wheelchair basketball, and rifle.”

The 2012 Warrior Games are hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee and supported by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, USO, Fisher House Foundation, and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

“Even if these athletes don’t make the U.S Army Warrior Games team, I expect everyone to take what they’ve learned back to their units,” Day added. “They are now the subject matter experts in the shooting field.”

Wounded Warrior’s Archery Hopes Fulfilled by a Community Worlds Away

SSG Jorge Haddock-Santiago, (L) and Scott Dault, owner of Crossroads Archery, work to adjust a compound bow set-up donated to Haddock-Santiago through donations from the archery community and private organizations. (Photos by U.S. Army SSG Tracy J. Smith)

By SSG Tracy J. Smith, Fort Stewart, Georgia WTB
It was 2004 when SSG Jorge G. Haddock-Santiago made his first trek halfway around the world, marking the first of numerous deployments.  With each combat tour, he suffered some form of injury that, in 2009, would leave the seasoned combat artilleryman unfit for continuation of active service.

Haddock-Santiago resigned to dedicate himself to the new mission of a transitioning Soldier—s to heal and transition back to active service or continue to serve the nation as a Veteran in my community.’

“I racked up a total of six deployments,” Haddock-Santiago said with a thoughtful look in his eyes. “The worst thing that ever happened to me wasn’t so much the physical injuries—it was losing my friends.”

The scars of loss are the hardest to bear for any Soldier especially carrying the guilt of ‘why not me?’

“I had so many things to work through,” he recalled, with a slight ever-present tremor in his hands.  “I have come a long way working through my post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and other anxieties associated with loss.”

Haddock-Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, dreamed of a military career that would find him mentoring others.  As a young boy, his father introduced him to archery as a form of relaxation, patience, and focus. Upon his assignment to Bamberg, Germany’s Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) he was reintroduced to archery as a part of the WTB adaptive sports program, never imagining the healing properties the sport would have.

When he was selected to try out for the Army’s 2012 Warrior Games archery team, Haddock-Santiago developed a renewed sense of purpose.  Again travelling halfway around the world to Sumter, South Carolina, he was ready to compete to be a part of the third annual Olympic-style games for U.S. military service men and women who have become wounded, ill, or injured.

“I am ready to give my best in memory of my guys because their loss is a burden I carry throughout my life,” he said.  “They were my mentors, and because of them I am alive.”

Retired SFC Steven Coleman, the U.S. Army Warrior Games archery coach, felt Haddock-Santiago’s chances for a spot on the team was strong. Unfortunately, opportunity can knock you down as quickly as you are lifted up.

“When military archers are sent this far it’s important that they come prepared,” Coleman explained about his clinic and the imperativeness of being on your ‘A-game.’  “His bow broke and the harsh reality is something like this can immediately end your chances to continue in a competition unless you are able to get that equipment repaired or replaced.”

To Haddock-Santiago it meant he had failed those he wished to honor, and he described how personal that failure was in one word-demoralized.

Soldiers are trained to be acutely responsive in tough situations, assessing then managing.

When it was suggested that a small archery shop in Summerton, South Carolina, , a 30-minute drive from the clinic grounds, may be able to fit him and his battle-buddy, SSG Albert ‘Al’ Louangketh, also a Bamberg WTB Soldier with a bow, they set off on a new mission not realizing another set of life-changing events were about to unfold.

Scott Dault, owner of the Crossroads Archery, was at his post with the same disarming smile that he has greeted customers with for more than 30 years.

“I could tell the young man was upset when he got me on the phone,” Dault recalled. “We just didn’t realize how much it meant to him to be here and how far he had travelled until I talked to him and his buddy Al filled me in a bit when they got here.”

Haddock-Santiago confirmed to his leadership in Germany that he found a bow but it may be a bit out of his budget.  His First Sergeant reassured him that Haddock-Santiago should not worry about it adding, “My First Sergeant went one step further and volunteered to pay for it out of his own pocket.”

What the 17-year career Veteran did not realize was his benefits were manifesting before he had even arrived at the little shop in Summerton. Dault, along with his wife Kim, began contacting local archery clubs in the area before the two combat Veterans arrived.

“I got in touch with the president of Bowhunters of South Carolina] David Shull, and the president of Swamp Fox Archers, and they started a ripple effect reaching out to the local South Carolina archery organizations,” Dault said.  “Within minutes we had the okay and were able to get Jorge fixed up.”

A customer who frequented Crossroads Archery, Bob Vaden, was so moved by the Soldier’s indomitable spirit and Dault’s determination and this fledgling brotherhood of archers that he reached in his pocket to make a personal donation.

“We look at our lives and know we owe a lot to good folks like Jorge and Al,” Dault said of Vaden’s gift.

Haddock-Santiago was the recipient an $1,100 archery setup courtesy of the Daults and his brotherhood of archers but the group’s altruism did not stop there as the man who traveled half-way around the world has sparked a new opportunity for an unlikely partnership.

“This is about rebuilding their lives,” Coleman added.  “These Soldiers and Veterans have given so much as our true one-percenters and this is one of the most therapeutic gifts any of them can be given to rebuild focus, patience and self-confidence.”

SSG Jorge Haddock-Santiago, (R), a combat Veteran and U.S. Army 2012 Warrior Games archery coach, retired SFC Steven Coleman, work to repair Haddock-Santiago's compound bow during the initial archery preparation and selection clinic. (Photos by U.S. Army SSG Tracy J. Smith)

The curative benefits also match WTC’s mission of providing viable adaptive sports opportunity for the severely injured. Archery’s versatility allows those with severe disabilities to enjoy the benefits using special tactile equipment such as mouth-tabs for those with upper body strength issues or prosthetics and an upright aiming device to assist blind archers.

Dault’s band of archers has donated archery equipment to five additional wounded Soldiers since that momentous day in late January.  The gift of a bow set-up can mark a new beginning for many of these Veterans and Soldiers.  Although there will be therapeutic benefits knowing someone cares is the most important benefit. This is all due to an encounter born of misfortune and donations from caring communities’ worlds away from the chaos of the battlefield.

“I was never in the military but my dad was a U.S. Air Force pilot,” Dault said describing the importance of what their mission was becoming. “My first employee worked for me while he was in high school and in college joined the South Carolina National Guard. He was deployed a few times and is now a Major.”

Dault chuckles at the last statement and looks around at the mounted trophies and spoils of the hunt that hang around his internationally known shed-shop he deems a ‘one-horse-operation.’

He cannot help but fondly reminisce about the man that he says “types like he talks” and looks forward to seeing his friend when he again travels halfway around the world in March for the next archery-training clinic.

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