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Patriotic Article
By Army SFC Michael J. Carden

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Wounded Warriors Stay Positive
(November 1, 2009)

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2009 – Yesterday I went to Karen Wagner Gym at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex here to interview and photograph wounded warriors playing wheelchair basketball.

Basketball is just one of a host of sports wounded warriors have the opportunity to participate in as they rehabilitate in military medical facilities around the country. Although I've never covered wheelchair basketball, I imagined it would have the same positive effect on our recovering veterans as other activities I've covered, such as Paralympic track and field, hand cycling and weightlifting, to name a few.

I was right. Jeremy, a Marine wounded in Iraq, looks forward to the basketball games here. A single-leg amputee who's been rehabbing at Walter Reed for the past two years, he said the wheelchair basketball and other rehabilitating sports are invaluable therapy.

“It's fun,” he said. “Learning you can still do certain things and be competitive does a lot for us who come out for these games every week.”

I was glad to have met Jeremy and to have the chance to chat openly with him for a bit. He was fairly apprehensive at first when I told him I was there to interview and photograph guys like him playing ball. He remained somewhat guarded, and didn't want to be identified, but he shared with me that his doctors were in the process of deciding whether or not to amputate his other leg.

Like any hardcore Marine infantryman, he just said, “Oh well, I'll learn to deal with that, too.”

Jeremy ended up being the only wounded warrior to show up for the practice yesterday because of a new schedule the coach started this week. Practice begins two hours earlier now, and he and the volunteer coach, Billy Demby, guessed that a lot of the guys had other appointments or just didn't get the word on the time change.

Jeremy, Demby and I continued chatting around the bleachers for a bit, along with Heather Campbell, a site coordinator for the U.S. Paralympic Military Program, as we waited and hoped for more players to show up. Unfortunately, their guess was right. Apparently, Jeremy was the only guy to get the memo.

About 45 minutes passed, so I reluctantly began packing up my gear to go back to the Pentagon to work on other assignments. Basketball has always been one of my favorite sports to play since I was 7 years old, and I was really looking forward to my first wheelchair basketball game. But as I was thanking Demby, Jeremy and Campbell for the invitation, Demby suggested we play a little two-on-two.

I was a bit confused at first, because Campbell, Demby and I aren't disabled. But Coach pointed me in the direction of a closet where extra wheelchairs were stored, and he was eager for me to experience playing the game in a wheelchair. “You want me to be the fourth?” I asked excitedly.

The next thing I knew, I was in a chair, learning the variations of wheelchair basketball rules. Coach explained that you can spin your wheels twice before having to dribble, shoot or pass the ball. Otherwise, it's a traveling violation. When shooting free throws or three-pointers, the rear wheels have to stay behind the respective lines. You can bump another player with your chair, but if you do it too hard, it's a foul. And of course, you can't lift your body out of the chair to gain a shot, rebound or defensive advantage. Otherwise the rules are fairly the same as those for ordinary basketball.

The strategy, however, is a different story. I consider myself a pretty quick and agile guy, so not being able to use my speed was pretty difficult. I'm also pretty competitive, and when my first few shot attempts didn't even hit the rim, I was pretty discouraged, not to mention that almost every time I had to set the ball in my lap to spin my wheels to move, Jeremy stole it from me. Needless to say, there was no shortage of jokes at my expense.

But after a few possessions, my determination paid off. Coach filled me in on the importance of setting picks for my teammates and trying to shoot the ball while not rolling too fast. I started to make some shots, and Campbell and I were developing a rhythm.

By this time, though, my hands were blistered and my shoulders were throbbing with pain from trying to compensate for my lack of legs with my hands. “How do these guys do this for two hours straight twice a week?” I thought.

I'm in the gym at least five days a week, lifting weights, and I run just as often. But after about 20 minutes of wheeling myself around the court, I was smoked. Jeremy was too, but there wasn't nearly as much sweat dripping from his forehead as from mine. He was just moving along, playing the game almost as naturally as if he were playing on his feet. I really envied him -- not because he'd spent the last hour schooling me on the court, but because of his attitude and courage.

I've spent a good bit of time covering wounded warriors over the past year or so that I've been assigned to American Forces Press Service. Jeremy reminded me, as have many wounded warriors I've met, that life is too short not to enjoy it. He and thousands of other disabled veterans across the country have overcome obstacles and adversities that could make even the most optimistic people crack.

They've stared death in the face, and are now living their challenging lives to the fullest when it would be so much easier to just give up. But they don't give up. Beyond the prosthetics, bandages and screws holding them together physically, they're still soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and in traditional military fashion, they just keep driving on.

Demby, who was wounded in the Vietnam War, said it best: “Although these guys' lives have changed, they look at living with their disabilities as a second chance, a new beginning. Their resiliency is an example to all of us.”

When you say it like that, Coach, you make a good point.

By Army SFC Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Copyright 2009

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