First Comes Training, Then Comes Competition

By LTC Jeanette Griffin, WTC Stratcom

SGT Ben Thomas after competing in the 100- and 200-meter wheelchair competition during the 2011 Warrior Games.

The sweat from the Soldier’s brow dripped down his forehead as he prepared for his turn at the start line. He knew he was ready. He would use the butterflies and nervousness to drive himself to the finish line.

SGT Benjamin Thomas, the only Army track and field 100-meter and 200-meter wheelchair competitor, was medically discharged from the Army in December 2006, after having his right knee reconstructed due to a basketball injury. Then in 2008, Thomas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Although he slowly lost his mobility and began using a wheelchair, he did not let that stop his determination to compete in the 2011 Warrior Games.

“I decided to compete because I told myself that I can, plus I wanted to show others that I can still do the things I used to do.” Thomas said.

A week before the competition, 24 Soldiers trained to compete in the track and field events at the 2011 Warrior Games. Retired Army LTC Sue Bozgoz, the Army team’s track and field coach, was crucial to training this team for success.

“For many of my track and field athletes, these Games have become a part of their life, as well as mine,” Bozgoz said. “I can tell from talking with them that everything from their head to their soul has been filled with the Warrior Games spirit.”

Bozgoz, who has 54 marathons under her belt, knows plenty about coaching. Although she no longer runs marathons due to injuries sustained from a car accident, she trains military and civilian personnel and coaches international runners throughout the year.

“I have been here seven days watching our warriors train with passion and guts,” Bozgoz said before the track and field competition, held on the first day of the Warrior Games. “Whether they were running on the track or throwing the shot put in the field, they were training as a team with focus and drive.”

“In my mind, the 2011 Warrior Games is filled with champions with big hearts and solid drive,” she added. “Whether our warriors come in first, second, third or last, that’s part of the game, and we are all winners.”

Before arriving at Warrior Games, Thomas trained three days per week for one and a half hours per day. Just before the competition, he spent some time in Colorado Springs perfecting his form and technique, as well as adjusting to the altitude.

“My drive consists of my Family and showing others and myself that it can be done,” Thomas stated.

Thomas sees the Warrior Games as a stepping stone towards doing his best and believes in a positive attitude no matter what. His goal is to remain healthy. Currently, his multiple sclerosis is in remission.

“Don’t say ‘can’t’ because you put a handicap on yourself,” Thomas said. “Never say ‘never’ because that shows you are quitting.”

Helping Thomas and other competitors is Millie Daniels, a 10-year high school track and field coach from Bedford, VA. She was selected as one of the assistant coaches for the Warrior Games and helped the field participants train for their event. “Helping to train these athletes has been an opportunity of a lifetime,” Daniels said. “I am glad I was invited to assist with the track and field events.”

After the Warrior Games, many of the track and field athletes and coaches will continue to add to their track and field repertoire.

“I plan to continue coaching and training a group of world class elite international runners,” Bozgoz said. “I have also accepted the challenge to train the first-ever Warrior Transition Command team as they prepare for this year’s 2011 Army Ten-Miler.”

Now that the Warrior Games are over and the winners announced, the journey home proved to be the final highlight because the world now recognizes these warriors as not just wounded, but as remarkable athletes.

The Army brought home 15 medals in track and field: 2 gold, 4 silver, and 9 bronze.

And the Winner is…

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC Stratcom

During the 2011 Warrior Games closing ceremony, the color guard entered the ceremony and proudly held the flags of the military branches during the playing of the national anthem.

The 2011 Warrior Games came to a close May 21 at the Air Force Academy with the Marines being presented with the Chairman’s Cup. Although the Army team did not win the official, coveted cup, they did a great job of capturing 41 medals throughout the competition.

The closing ceremony included Army Chief of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey speaking to the athletes and praising them for their efforts during the game, throughout recovery and training, and in overcoming their disabilities to become an inspiration.

“Every one of you is an inspiration,” Dempsey said. “You all incorporate the Army’s warrior ethos of I will never quit. I will never accept defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

The Army’s athletes were strong contenders, and gave the Marines, Air Force, combined Navy-Coast Guard Team, and the Special Operations Team tough competition.

Regardless of event, injury or illness, the Army athletes gave it their own, never quit, and completed the games with the following final medal count:

Gold: 9

Silver: 13

Bronze: 19

Although the Army may not have won the Chairman’s Cup, they are all winners and I congratulate all of the medal winners and participants. Your hard work and training made the 2011 Warrior Games a great success.

 

It Feels Right

By Jim Wenzel, WTC Stratcom

GEN Martin Dempsey, Chief of Staff of the Army, addresses the athletes at the 2011 Warrior Games Awards Ceremony.

The 37th Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Martin Dempsey spoke Saturday night at the Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena at the 2011 Warrior Games Awards Ceremony. His message resonated with the athletes and other servicemembers as well as the public attending the ceremony as he shared the words: “It feels right.”

Dempsey highlighted many areas that capture the “rightness” of the event and what it means to the military community. It feels right to have wounded, ill, and injured athletes come together to compete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It feels right that “Corporate America” sponsors like Deloitte, non-profits like the United Service Organizations, and government organizations like the city of Colorado Springs contributed both financially and through the organization of volunteers to help make the competition happen.

Sharing the past two weeks with the Soldiers and Veterans who competed at the Warrior Games, I wholeheartedly agree with the general. It is right to gather these wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and Veterans together in a spirit of competition and the brotherhood and sisterhood of arms. All of the Soldiers and Veterans I had the pleasure of speaking with, expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to participate. They also explained to me the honor and humility they felt in the presence of other warrior athletes who shared in their experience.

Although each athlete has his or her own unique story, there are common themes interwoven between all of them. The beginning of each story may be uniformly tragic, but these stories unfold and fill with hope and positive circumstances as these Soldiers and Veterans learn to reshape their lives. Their minds and bodies changed, but the will that drives them to succeed, overcome, and persevere remains strong.

These athletes are, as Dempsey concluded in his remarks, “all heroes.” Having gotten to know several of the athletes over the past two weeks, I can safely conclude that the sound of this word is unusual and uncomfortable to most of them. In fact, I know that most of them would simply shrug it off and say they were only doing their job.

This discomfort and denial is as right as the Warrior Games itself. Heroes don’t take the title for themselves, it is given to them by those who watch and judge their actions. As much as they would like to cover their amazing performances, their indomitable will, and the strength of their character with a job description, no one in the Clune Arena was buying it.

We saw them in action and judged for ourselves. The courage, fortitude, and esprit de corps on display left no doubt that we were in the presence of heroes. As representatives of all wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers we could not have asked for better than those who made the journey to Colorado Springs this year.

As the torch was extinguished over the 2011 Warrior Games, I know many of the wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers left the arena plotting their next move. Some will return next year for the 2012 Warrior Games, perhaps others will try for a spot on the United States Paralympic team, and many will apply their drive to succeed to some other worthy goal in their lives.

Wherever they go and whatever they do, I know the memory of these Warrior Games will remain with them and with us as a shining example of the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Congratulations to all the Soldiers and Veterans who participated and represented the Army and I hope to see you again next year.

 

I’m not a Hero—I’m a Soldier

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

On Saturday, AW2 Soldier CPT Ivan Castro appeared on MSNBC to discuss the Warrior Games and his commitment to long distance running. He competed for the Special Ops team on the ground this week at Warrior Games.

“I’m not a hero,” CPT Castro, who is blind, told the host, Dylan Ratigan. “I’m just a Soldier doing his job…I’m a leader and an officer, and a Soldier.”

When asked about what makes the Warrior Games special, he explained, “If you were to come out here, you’d see that these warriors never quit. We didn’t do it on the field of battle, and we won’t do it here. Regardless of whether we’re injured, we’re still human beings,” he added. “We can continue to serve and show the world what we’re made of. “

CPT Castro continues to serve on active duty at Fort Bragg. “I have a great command that supports me and is willing to employ me to fulfill my abilities,” said Castro.

Watch the full nine-minute interview online at MSNBC.com.

 

Presenting the 2011 Warrior Games Wheelchair Basketball Champions

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

The U.S. Army Warrior Games wheelchair basketball team won gold after defeating the Marines on Friday evening.

The score was 44 to 19, and what a game it was!

It was the clash of the Titans. The Army had to closely hold the Marines in the last half. They were putting on the pressure to turn the game, but the Army was on it. The Marines did not easily surrender the championship from last year. The Army team, under the guidance of coach Doug Garner, came together as a rolling force that could not be stopped. The team of ten wanted it and they got it. They made us proud last Friday night. It was a very rough game with many crashes and wheelchairs turned over. My jaw dropped at the speed and aggression that this game is played. Their skill and dexterity is tremendous and appears to be a full contact sport. The Army won, and they won with honor.

A Marine player’s fall on the court demonstrates the intensity during the Warrior Games wheelchair basketball championship game.

Winning. That phrase is often misused. Look at the folks in the photos on this blog. They were winners even before they rolled onto the court. There are no actors at the Warrior Games. The men and women are the real deal. They are Soldiers that gave of themselves and their bodies to be the frontline of defense for freedom. Even after becoming injured, they stood up to show us a whole new gear at the Warrior Games. They are the definition of integrity, resiliency, and determination. Yes, they have injuries, but they are not defined by them. They push the envelope to find new skills and new successes. That is winning.

Read the blogs about these folks, they are incredible and they are going places. I met each of the players, and many of their Family members, and I count them among my friends. They are outstanding. I am certain this is just the beginning for them and their success in many directions of their lives. Garner said he doesn’t just want them to win at basketball. He wants them to win at life—a balanced life. He hopes that all the coaching, goal setting, and connections keep in the forefront of their minds and carry over to all aspects of their lives. The Army is committed to their success.

In conclusion, the difference between these games and a professional sports game was clear to me at the very end. I saw the flip of a switch when all the players lined up to shake hands at the end of the game. They were once again brothers and sisters in arms again, unified. In that regard, as tough as all the other teams were, I am glad we are on the same team when the branch jerseys come off. America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, because of men and women like these.

In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I extend my deep appreciation to all the Warrior Games teams. You have my respect and admiration. I know that next year, the other services will be hot on the Army team’s heels to try and take their win. It is going to be a long year to have to wait for such excitement again.

 

Army Sweeps Swimming Finals

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC Stratcom

MSG Rhoden Galloway after the swimming finals. He won four of the Army’s fifteen medals, three of them are first place finishes.

The Army athletes came to the finals focused on one thing, a medal. Little did they know they would be taking home 15. The swim team proved they are a force to be reckoned with after winning four gold, three silver, and eight bronze medals in the swimming finals during the 2011 Warrior Games.

“What we did was phenomenal,” said Holly Roselle, the Army’s swimming coach. “They came together this week and supported each other. Nice work.”

“They did things they hadn’t done before,” Roselle said. “They really stepped up and performed at a higher level.”

From Wednesday’s preliminaries to Friday’s finals, many of the finalists decreased their swim times by seconds, which helped them seal the win in a couple of swim meets.

“Many of them did better than they thought they would,” Roselle added. “We actually won more than we were slated to coming into the finals.”

MSG Rhoden Galloway, who won three of the four gold medals and one of the silver medals, agrees with Roselle.

“After you’re injured, you’re told you can’t do things and that’s crushing,” said Galloway. “Knowing you’ll never be able to run again, especially being in the military where you have to complete physical fitness tests, being able to run is important. Having the chance to swim gave us a chance to compete in adaptive sports again.”

The Army’s swimming medals are broken down as follows:

MSG Rhoden Galloway – 3 Gold, 1 Silver
SSG Kenny Griffith – 1 Bronze
SPC Michael Grover – 1 Bronze
SPC Andy Kingsley – 1 Silver, 2 Bronze
SSG Stefanie Mason – 1 Gold, 1 Bronze
SFC Landon Ranker – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze
CPL Harrison Ruzicka – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze
SPC Galen Ryan – 2 Silver
SGT Gavin Sibayan – 1 Bronze

Congratulations to all winners and to all who participated.

The day is now over. The swim goggles are hung up or folded away. These nine athletes will never forget last week. They showed that an illness or injury would not stop them from setting and reaching a goal, and they have the medals to prove it.

 

Equipment Malfunction is No Excuse

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom



YouTube DoDLive

Here at the Warrior Games, everyone is buzzing about cycling. Yes, we’re ecstatic about the Army team winning four medals—two golds, two silver. Yes, we’re buzzing about the three Army Ultimate Champion candidates who rode across the finish line together, as a team. But most of all, people are talking about one AW2 Veteran, Freddie de los Santos.

De los Santos didn’t win his race, but in my mind, and the minds of most of the people here, he represents the true spirit of the Warrior Games and the Army: completing the mission, against all odds.

De los Santos started out Friday like any other race—focused, committed, and ready to give his all. But shortly after the starting gun, he noticed something wasn’t right. And with 2km to go, he realized the chain on his recumbent bike was broken.

At this point, most people would have called it a day. They’d rationalize that they’d trained hard and done everything they could to prepare. It was an equipment failure, something they couldn’t do anything about.

Not de los Santos. This Special Ops competitor wouldn’t take no for an answer. Instead of giving up, he used the equipment he had—his hands. He hand-walked himself and the bike for the last two kilometers of his 10k race, refusing to forfeit.

And the crowd went wild—people walked out onto the track behind him, cheering him on, showing their support. De los Santos didn’t let an above-the-knee amputation stop him from living life to its fullest, and he wasn’t about to let a bike chain stop him from crossing the finish line at the Warrior Games.

Check out this compelling video captured by the USO staff onsite at the race.

 

 

Schooop…

By Retired SGM Vondell Brown, AW2 Advocate Support Branch

Warrior Games archer SGT Kenneth Harker prepares to shoot an arrow at his target during practice.

SGT Kenneth Harker held his breath and kept his body steady as he zeroed in through the peep site. When he was sure of his shot, he let go of the release. The only sound that was heard was a whisper of the arrow leaving the bow, “Schooop…”

As the sound faded, it was quickly followed by a hard “thud” as the arrow hit its mark. Then, there was silence. “I was speechless,” Harker explained. He was very surprised since he had only picked up a bow for the first time three months prior.

“It is such a rush,” Harker from the Warrior Transition Unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center exclaimed, as he qualified for the finals in the archery compound competition at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, CO. “I am very proud of him,” said his wife Heather Harker as she continued to cheer him on in the finals.

“After I was injured and my legs were amputated, life seemed uncertain. It seemed that much had been taken away,” Harker explained. After being in Baghdad for just six months, he was injured. He was part of a 22 vehicle convey on Route Gold. His vehicle was hit by an explosive formed penetrator (EFP). His injuries included a hole in his right forearm and the back of his legs were blown off. He had no feeling from his knee down, so he opted to have his legs from his knees down amputated.

Having already clinched the bronze medal in the seated discus last Tuesday, Harker stated, “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” He explained these feelings to me as each round went by and he heard his name called to advance. Harker was presented with the silver medal by MG Gary Cheek, Director of Military Personnel Management for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1. After receiving his medal, Harker stated,“I am going to train and annihilate the competition next year.” He plans to practice hard all year and take up bow hunting. In support of this, many people have told him to check out the AW2 Community Support Network for organizations that help bring recreational opportunities, such as hunting to wounded warriors. He said that when he returns home, he is going to check them out.

 

Full Court Press

By Patricia Sands, WTC Stratcom

Warrior Games wheelchair basketball player SPC Anthony Pone receives the ball during one of this week's games.

“I can do it with one arm behind my back…” That phrase takes on a whole new meaning at the Warrior Games. Whether it’s one arm, one leg, or one eye, it doesn’t matter: these Soldiers have come to win in life. They bring what they have and give it their all. And no, it is not just testosterone speaking, there are tons of women representing the Army. It is internal strength and fortitude that rises from the deepest center of their soul that fills in what was lost. Life is not fair, but life is what you make of it.

After spending a week in their midst, the admiration I have for all of warriors is immense. I might as well be looking at the face of my son when I am watching the basketball team. My oldest is approximately the same age and is an Army 2LT in Korea. The Warrior Games and the healing of all wounded warriors are very personal to me, as both a military widow and a mother of a Soldier.

Look in the mirror and ask yourself how you would have reacted at 25 years old, in the face of such a life-changing event? Would you be on the court steering headlong into a crushing pile of wheelchairs and maybe landing hard across the floor—while being happy about it? After watching them play, I can say for myself even at my age “I would!” I might not win…but I sure would play. It looks like a lot of fun. These warriors show the way for all with “disabilities.” To me they are justdifferently abled. And they are very abled at that.

Coach Garner has seen players grow and develop on and off the court due to sports. Sports can give a person confidence and friendship to succeed in other areas of their recovery. He has said it is so important for them to get out early and push their bodies in a way that is challenging and developmental, but also fun. “Fun is something that is often missing in the lives of a lot of people with disabilities. Because many times they are very limited in their options of what is available to them.”

Next week the competition will be over for these wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers, but not the forward motion in other directions in their lives. I would like to highlight an example of how yet another Soldier is succeeding off the court. SPC Anthony Pone was injured and lost one leg in a car accident in 2002 while serving at Ft. Lee, VA. He will tell you that his inspiration to succeed and go forward is his two daughters, Shakiya and Anyea .

I am sure his daughters—as well as his whole extended Family—are extremely inspired and proud of SPC Pone. Last week, they saw their dad in a cap and gown being handed a hard-earned college diploma. Pone earned a BS in Social Work and a Minor in Psychology. When asked what his plans are, he said he is not stopping until he has his Masters. His goal is to work with Veterans. He said he knows he can be of help.

This is quite an accomplishment for anyone. Yet doubly exciting as SPC Pone is the first person ever in the history of his family to graduate from college. He did it. And he did it with only one leg, rolling in a wheelchair.

 

You Can Get There From Here

By Retired SGM Vondell Brown, AW2 Advocate Support Branch

Warrior Games wheelchair basketball player SGT Kinga Kiss-Johnson prepares to take a shot.

SGT Kinga Kiss-Johnson wrote these words in magic marker on the belt of her wheelchair: “You can get there from here.” She explains that it was a big change from standing to sitting playing basketball; “life doesn’t stop” is what she sums that statement up with. Every time Kiss-Johnson sits in that chair, she sees and holds those words close to her as she straps herself in. Then it’s game on from there.

Kiss-Johnson is “KJ” on the Warrior Games Army wheelchair basketball team. She is very well loved. In fact, when the team won against the Marines the other day, SPC Juan Soto looked around and took count. He said, “Stop…where is “KJ”? Wait for ‘KJ’.” The team is not a team without “KJ” and her service dog, Balto. And soon, she and Balto completed the photo, with her dog lying down next to her.

It is remarkable that “KJ” plays basketball at all after sustaining her injuries. Kiss-Johnson was medically retired out of the Fort Gordon Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) in November 2010, receiving 100% permanent disability ratingfor combat-related injuries, including TBI, PTSD, left and right hip injuries, and spinal cord injury. It has taken years for her to recover and is an ongoing process. A true inspiration.

Sports are in her blood—she has played basketball since she was a kid. She’s a natural athlete. Standing over 6 feet tall, she takes on any competitor on the court. I remember playing against her in at one of their practices and she telling me as I tried to enter into the paint, “this is my house, get out.” And that is exactly what I did.

I asked “KJ” about her prediction for the Army wheelchair basketball team at this year’s Warrior Games. She said, “Gold. We are here for no other reason.” And from the way they beat the Marines and Navy, I totally agree.

 

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