Wounded Warriors Stay Positive
(November 1, 2009)
|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 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
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
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
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.
Army SFC Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
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