“With All Due Respect, Sir… You are Goin’ Down”

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

The Army wheelchair basketball team scrimmages with members of the WTC cadre.

It was fun to hear the smack go down before the scrimmage between the WTC cadre and the Army wheelchair basketball team. However, after they started playing, the smack was gone on the cadre side. They were too busy keeping the ball and getting the chairs to turn more quickly. To their credit, the cadre gave it their all. They did a great job and played hard. Yet, the difference in the skill level between the two groups was very apparent. The Warrior Games Army team dominated the court and easily made complex plays look very easy. The cadre soon learned that maneuvering the wheelchairs and trying to win at the same time was not easy.

“They are tough. They didn’t cut any slack,” said MSG Rebeca Garo of AW2 Advocate Branch about the Army wheelchair basketball team. “Your hands are your legs, and it is harder than standing basketball. The coordination of moving the wheels and the fast change of direction is hard to coordinate. Then add catching, dribbling, and shooting the ball into the mix, and you realize you are out matched. I am at a complete disadvantage in this wheelchair. They go circles around me.”

Mr. Vondell Brown, a WTC staff member, also agreed. He said that you don’t even see the wheelchairs once the action starts. “You see top athletes coming at you fast. They are very skilled,” he explained. I asked him how he did against them, and if he had any great plays. He walked away smiling and saying, “Excuse me. I am going to get some water now.”

From the Army wheelchair basketball team side, I asked SGT Kinga “KJ” Kiss-Johnson her thoughts about playing the cadre. She said that they did well and it was fun. “MSG James Shiver effectively blocked me a few times,” added Kiss-Johnson. That is quite a feat since she is an awesome player. She said the coordination takes time to learn.

I asked Kiss-Johnson how she began playing basketball. She said it was recommended to her by her occupational therapist. She explained that it was a fun game, but beyond the fun, it helped her get better. Basketball helped her relearn not only physical skills, but it also helped her with her brain injury. “There is a lot of different and complex eye, hand, and body coordination that happens with this game. My brain knows how to play basketball, but getting my body to go where my brain wants it to go, took a lot of time to learn again. Plus, as competitive as Soldiers are, we work hard to gain the skills to win.” There is no denying that she has excelled in this endeavor. It sounds like basketball is just what the doctor ordered… and laughter is the best medicine. It is a great way to relearn skills outside of a therapy session and bond with other Soldiers and Veterans.

Returning from getting his water, Mr. Brown said with certainty, “I should have eaten my Wheaties®. I don’t see any one beating this team.”

 

Bull’s-eye

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

SSG Peter Torruella of the 2011 Warrior Games Army archery team.

Back in the day, I was an accomplished archer. I still have a bunch of trophies proudly displayed in my TV room. Much to the chagrin of my kids, I will not move them no matter how old I get. Even with the passage of the years, I still remember what it takes to be a good archer. It goes beyond great equipment. It takes perfect posture, strong arms, steady hands, patience, precision timing, and most of all, repetition and practice. Whether it is target practice or hunting, the method is the same. You are trying to hit a small target dead center on an object far away. It takes a lot of coordination to hit the bull’s-eye every time.

One of the first people I met at the Army Warrior Games Training Camp in Colorado Springs was a tall lanky man with a New York accent, SSG Peter Torruella. He could never be accused of being shy. He came over and introduced himself with a hearty hello and said he was on the Army archery team. Me being me, I was very excited to hear his story and asked what led him to take part in the Warrior Games.

SSG Torruella was injured and part of his recovery plan was to learn a new sport. He had just started archery earlier this year and quickly started excelling. Today, he is ranked second among his fellow Warrior Games Army archers. When I responded with the word, “Remarkable” he responded, “I was just following orders.” He was told to hit the bull’s-eye, and he did. He made us all laugh, but it was no joke. He didn’t think he had the option of failing after being in the Army.

I thought about that. I learned to shoot archery as an outdoor recreational interest. Was I ever in danger? Heck no. I just sat quietly in a tree, waiting for luck to walk by me. No one was shooting back, and no one saw if I missed. However, SSG Torruella learned the same skills under pressure and danger. He had to succeed in order to survive in life and death situations.

Listen to a Soldier and your life and challenges will be put in to perspective very quickly. Tourruella told me of his decades in the service and his dedication during many of his deployments. My heart was touched by his long absences from his Family and the “hot dog Thanksgivings” in foreign lands. He quickly dismissed my somber face and said, “The Army is my life. These are the kind of guys I have spent my life with—the finest in the world.” I looked around and saw every age, race, injury, and rank and he continued, “They have everything in common with me. Everything.” His eyes filled with tears as he said with emphasis, “We know.”

He continued, “We are warriors and will do it all again for America to be safe. It is in our blood.”

SSG Torruella’s dedication to the well-being of all servicemembers is clear. For example, he was the inspiration for the formation of the American Troop Support Team organization. His gift of gab has served his battle buddies well. American Troop Support has sent 1,238 boxes of “goods from home” to 780 Soldiers. Like all American Soldiers, Torruella jumps in and makes a difference where he is. He is equally as adamant about Warrior Games. He will tell you the value and worth of the competition to wounded warriors and their healing process. Sports and competition brings out the best in Soldiers. He wants it bigger, better, and hopes more Soldiers will be involved next year.

I asked SSG Torruella what he will do when he leaves the service. He didn’t have an answer, but I am confident of one thing, he will succeed at anything he puts his mind to. Failure is not an option. About that time, his cell phone rang. He answered it and smiled hearing the voice on the other end—his wife calling to say she misses him. He explained to me that he is really good at rocking their seven month old daughter to sleep and that his Family can’t wait for him to come home after he wins his medal.

SSG Torruella has already hit the bull’s-eye of what is important in life. That medal will match his heart of gold.

I am the Master of my Fate and the Captain of my Soul

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Soldier SGT Alonzo Lunsford coaches three 2011 Warrior Games wheelchair basketball players during training.

SGT Alonzo Lunsford is an AW2 Soldier and one of the coaches for the 2011 Warrior Games wheelchair basketball team. Much has happened since he was a coach last year for shot put and discus. Coach Lunsford was one of the survivors from the Fort Hood tragedy and was shot six times, resulting in blindness in one of his eyes. He is still recovering, but insisted on being at the Warrior Games for the players.

Asked why it was vital for him to return as a coach, he replied, “It is about the Soldiers and showing what is possible. These games are exciting and invigorating. The Soldiers feel alive and see progress with their mind and their bodies. Participating in athletics is very therapeutic. It releases negative feelings and gives an outlet for frustration. The Soldier can take the stress and tension out on the court and not on those in his or her life.”

Watching the players on the court, he added, “The teamwork builds friendships for life. We all have chewed the same dirt. These are my people and they have been through the same pain,” Lunsford said. “What we have been through is culture shock to those out of the military.” After listening to these words, I realized that it is therapeutic for him and the athletes to be together. It is another way to heal and is a reality about which civilians can sympathize, but cannot empathize.

He lives by the words in the title of this blog, “I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.” He will tell you that he may not be able to play basketball, but he can coach. He said life is about looking at what you have and making the most out of it. He is from a long line of military and law enforcement people. When I asked this father of five if he was planning on staying in the Army, he replied, “Of course, we are still at war. If I can be of service to the Army, I will stay. When the war is done, I will think about getting out.”

For now he hopes that Warrior Games will expand and more players will come forward. He believes the Warrior Games helps wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and their Families, while educating and involving the public in a very positive way.

Go Army!

And the Army Goes Rolling Along

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

The 2011 Warrior Games Army wheelchair basketball team started training yesterday to prepare for next week’s competition.

Keep that tune in your mind when you come to see the Army wheelchair basketball team play. They plan to advance and complete their mission. What is their mission? The gold medal.

SGT Daniel Biskey is back and he is going for the gold medal. Last year, Biskey and his team won the wheelchair basketball silver medal in the 2010 Warrior Games. He has had his mind set on this year’s event since the defeat to the Marines. To prepare for the 2011 Warrior Games, he played wheelchair basketball four days a week and hand cycled whenever possible. Being a tough competitor, he was only saddened that he had to limit to two events. He would prefer to compete in all of them.

Indeed, SGT Biskey, and all of his team mates are a force to contend with on and off the playing field. Biskey has demonstrated his resiliency in many facets of his life and has overcome great challenges. For example, in November 2009, SGT Biskey was injured in Afghanistan while on foot patrol. During that mission he stepped on a mine that exploded and resulted in a left leg below the knee amputation. To talk with him now, the mission continues and he hopes to find a new way to serve.

This week SGT Biskey is training with his battle buddies on the court. These ten players have never met each other before, but they are kindred spirits and instant friends. They are the seasoned warriors and their level of training is clear. With the leadership of wheelchair basketball Coaches Doug Garner and SGT Alonzo Lunsford, the team metamorphosed from playing as individuals to jelling as a force that took ground and learned tactical ways of working together. And this was just the first day.

The game mimics life in many ways. During coaching sessions, Performance Enhancement Specialist Richard Harris of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program asked the team to write goals. As they did, he spoke about the power of the mind and the connection with the body. He said their program has noted that there are five conditions that work toward a high level of performance. These are: confidence, goal setting, attention control, energy management, and imagery. He said these are mental skills and like physical skills, they can get stronger with practice. To get mentally tough, he said the daily strengthening of these conditions will bring out the best in each athlete, and their physical performance will follow. These suggestions are not just for use during the game of basketball, but for the Soldiers and Veterans to use long after the game is over.

What were the players’ goals? SGT Devon Maston said, “First, I want to win no doubt. But I want to have fun winning. Second, I want to become a better player and a better person. Third, I want to be there to help my teammates on and off the court.”

Without a doubt, they are already gold in my book.

WTC Stratcom will be covering the various wheelchair basketball games all next week. Follow the coverage on the WTC blog, WTC Twitter page, and AW2 Facebook page.

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