Getting Airmen back in the 'Games'

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  • By Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
  • Defense Media Activity
Many Airmen have served honorably in the Air Force, but due to wounds, illnesses or injuries are no longer able to serve in the capacities they did before. The Warrior Games gives those Airmen a chance to serve again.

The games, scheduled for May 11-17 in Colorado Springs, are designed to introduce ill, injured or wounded service members to Paralympics sports. The Air Force team is composed of 40 active-duty and Reserve Airmen from across the country. Their injuries range from post-traumatic stress disorder to quadriplegia.

An Air Force Wounded Warrior is any Airman who has an injury or illness that may require long-term care or a medical or physical evaluation board to determine fitness for duty.

"The selection camp is Jan. 27 through Feb. 1 and all interested athletes attend and participate," said Maj. (Dr.) James Bales, the head coach for the Air Force Warrior Games team. "The training camp, April 14-20, is an intense sport-specific training camp, for the 40-member Air Force Warrior team. Coaches are engaged with the athletes from January until mid-May while they're back at home to see how they are doing with their training plans. The final week is the actual week-long competition, the Olympic-style event held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and Air Force Academy, both in Colorado Springs."

Initially, the athletes will travel to San Antonio for multiple adaptive sports programs to give them experience in the different sports. Then, during three separate one-week blocks, the potential team members are involved in steps leading to and participation in the actual competition.

"I'll look at the athletes as head coach and classify them based on the respective Warrior Games categories they qualify for," Bales said. "For instance, there are different amputee categories established by the type of amputation. Service members with other types of injuries such as spinal cord, traumatic brain injury and PTSD also participate in the games.

"Many athletes are multi-talented and enjoy all the sports, so I rely on my assistant coaches to help me decide which event the respective athlete can be of most benefit to the team," Bales said. "It's like a chess game as we determine where to place them."

More than 200 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans are expected to participate in 2013. They will comprise five U.S. teams representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command as well as one international team from the United Kingdom.

"We are proud to host the Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy," said Charlie Huebner, the USOC Chief of Paralympics. "Paralympic sport has a tremendously positive impact on individuals with physical disabilities, and the Warrior Games allow us to salute these fine young men and women who have served their countries honorably."

The seven sports the event encompasses are shooting, archery, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, swimming, cycling and track and field.

"The Warrior Games is continually recruiting athletes," Bales added. "Anyone who thinks they might be eligible is encouraged to contact their recovery care coordinator or me. It's really a great privilege to work with these athletes.

"There are about 6,000 Air Force wounded warriors and the Warrior Games are open to all of them," Bales said.

Bales himself is no stranger to Olympic sports or wounded warriors. He is an orthopedic surgeon with the 81st Surgical Operations Squadron here and served as head coach for the Air Force 2012 Warrior Games.

He also spent the past two years at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., participating in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program. The WCAP provides active-duty, National Guard and Reserve Airmen the opportunity to train and compete at national and international sports competitions with the ultimate goal of selection to the U.S. Olympic Team.

"I was a collegiate swimmer at the (U.S. Air Force Academy) and have participated in many triathlons," Bales said. "In fact, I have a professional license in the sport. While I was in medical school and residency, I commuted 20 miles every day, either by cycling or running."

It was during this time Bales learned about the Warrior Games, which started in 2010.

"Following the 2011 games, the Air Force Warrior Games staff came to me and asked me to be the head coach for the 2012 games," he said. "My triathlon experience was also a factor. I was honored to accept the post, especially since it combines my passions of medicine, coaching and athletics. I was able to blend my experience and areas of expertise to help service members."

(Steve Pivnick contributed to this article)