Wounded US veterans find healing in sports
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Losing his legs during a rocket attack in Iraq seven years ago left Heath Calhoun unable to fulfill his desire to serve his country.
Representing the United States at the Paralympic Winter Games is helping fill that void.
An Alpine skier, Calhoun was the U.S. flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver a week ago, and he finished eighth in the sit-ski Super-G on Friday.
“My military service was kind of left incomplete; it was taken out of my hands by the explosion that took my legs,” Calhoun said. “So being able to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage is huge for me. It can also give me some closure from starting in the military to finishing up here as a Paralympian.”
Calhoun, who was a squad leader for the 101st Airborne Division, is one of five military veterans among 50 athletes on the U.S. Paralympic team in Vancouver. That number is expected to grow by about 4 percent – to roughly one of every seven athletes – by the London Summer Paralympics in 2012 because of casualties to U.S. service members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Bittersweet is a great way to describe it,” Calhoun said. “It’s horrible that guys are being injured on the battlefield, but it’s part of it and I understand that. And I also think it’s fantastic that the guys that are being injured are coming back and participating in sport, staying active.”
The Paralympics started in 1948 as a rehabilitation tool for injured veterans of World War II. U.S. participation spiked after the Vietnam War.
“Because we are in an engagement, no doubt we expect to see a surge in individuals that want to represent their country again,” said Charlie Huebner, Paralympics chief for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The Paralympic Adaptive Sports Program was started in 2008 by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and has helped more than 6,000 military personnel and veterans by creating programs in 113 communities, 31 military installations and 17 veteran facilities. As in the Olympics, only a few athletes reach the elite level in their sport, but the real goal is rehabilitation, both physical and psychological.
“This has provided so much purpose and focus and discipline in my life,” said 29-year-old Army veteran Andy Soule, who won the first U.S. medal of the 2010 games with a bronze in biathlon pursuit on the opening day. “Getting into sports is one of the best things they can do, even if they don’t have the potential to compete at a World Cup or Paralympic level. Getting into sports of any type is incredible for a person with a disability.”
Soule ran track in high school, but otherwise wasn’t much of an athlete. That changed after his legs were amputated a few inches above his knees after a roadside bomb detonated while he was a Humvee gunner in Afghanistan in 2005. He started with sports while in the hospital, trying wheelchair fencing, volleyball and hand cycling. Skiing came much later.
Like Calhoun, Soule visits other injured soldiers to share his story.
“One of the things I tell guys is how much sports have meant to me as far as staying active and as far as replacing some of that focus and discipline that I needed while I was in the military, giving me an outlet for that,” he said.
Sports remain a big part of Calhoun’s recovery, particularly the mental aspect.
“I kind of had a brain meltdown the first time I flew back home and experienced what life was going to be like as a disabled person,” he said. “But the more I learned and participated in sports, the more I was able to cope with my new life.”
For veterans, another chance to represent the U.S. can be a big part of overcoming their wounds.
Wheelchair curler Patrick McDonald lost his legs while on a U.S. military patrol in Korea in 1991 and chokes up just talking about the Paralympic opening ceremonies.
“To put USA back on a uniform was great,” said McDonald, his voice cracking. “I teared up a little bit at opening ceremonies. Just because you are sitting in a chair or hopping on one leg, life isn’t over. When you have something like sports to reach out to and see other vets going through the same thing and make it to this level, the sky is the limit.”