Wounded warriors gain confidence during Pentagon volleyball contest

  • Published
  • By J.D. Leipold
  • Army News Service
Gung-ho spirits were the norm as wounded-warrior athletes from the four services, U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of Veterans Affairs clashed at the 3rd Annual Joint Services Sitting Volleyball Tournament, in recognition of Warrior Care Month.

Held in the Pentagon Athletic Club, Nov. 21, and hosted by the Office of Warrior Care Policy, the tourney showcases the services' Warrior Transition units. It also highlights the commitment of wounded, ill and injured service members to their physical and mental well-being through the Military Adaptive Sports Program, begun in 2011.

Before the two final games which pitted the Marine Corps against Air Force and Army against SOCOM, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Warrior Care Policy Donna Seymour spoke about DOD's commitment to "building a ready and resilient force," the theme for this year's Warrior Care Month.

"Military adaptive sports facilitate stress release and it provides reconditioning and camaraderie between our veterans and our active-duty service members and it improves their overall health and well-being as they adopt an added healthy lifestyle," she said. "To date in the last year, almost 100,000 recovering service members have participated in daily activities including yoga, wheelchair basketball, cycling, track and field, strength conditioning, swimming and sitting volleyball."

Seymour added that as confidence is built in one area such as physical competence, confidence in the emotional domain also increases. DOD Warrior Care Policy intends to expand the number of competitive sports and ultimately allow them to be included in the annual Warrior Games. She said her office also wants to increase participation by female athletes as well as service members with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A large crowd of supporters cheered for their services. While it was apparent to them who the amputees were on the courts, other players had wounds, illnesses or injuries that were not so obvious. Irrespective of how they came to be members of their service's team, one element all players had in common was their own brand of resilience and fortitude.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Melissa Garcia, 27, was deployed to Spain when one day in January she was diagnosed with breast cancer and returned to her home station at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz.

After seeing an oncologist, she opted for surgery, having her lymph nodes removed, coupled with four rounds of chemo and six weeks of radiation every day. So far, Garcia said, she seems to have beaten the cancer, which never got her down.

"There was nothing I could do about it and I'm the type of person who takes things as they come at me," said Garcia who serves as a medic. "I have a husband and seven-year-old daughter, and I thought it was important for me to show her that I could be strong even when I was sick."

Garcia was invited by the Air Force to its three-day adaptive sports camp in Las Vegas, which she jumped at. Taking a three-day break from radiation which upset her doctor, Garcia said she wasn't going to pass on the opportunity.

"Sports are my passion and playing in this tournament brings a sense of togetherness for all the services, because yes, each branch takes care of their own wounded warriors, but when we come here and play against each other, (there's) real awareness of togetherness."

On the surface, Sgt. 1st Class David Hall also appears to be a Soldier devoid of physical injuries, but the pain he continued to feel after injuring his lower back and spine in Iraq in 2003, continued to worsen until it was simply unmanageable. He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sent to Walter Reed for psychiatric help and therapy on his back.

So much of Soldiering is physical, Hall said, and to have that taken away was tough, especially since he served as a platoon sergeant.

His physical therapist recommended the sitting volleyball team because there's no jumping -- a major rule is that one butt cheek remain on the playing floor at all times -- and that's tough for someone to do who has all their limbs, he said.

"I was able to make the cut and excited to have the opportunity to play alongside some of my brethren who are lower-extremity amputees, but the biggest complication I had was learning to scoop the ball at the floor and to remain on the floor when going for the ball," he said. "Being part of a team is really big to me and being able to stay active is also extremely important and gives me the chance to show my fellow Soldiers who are amputees that we're in this fight together. I'm just glad to be part of the team."

Spc. Samuel Walley lost his right leg and left arm to a remote-controlled improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan in June, 2012. He said there was never any time to be depressed or sad over his bad fortune, though he did get a little down when he was worried about his buddies.

As a member of the Warrior Transition Unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the 21-year-old Georgia native said when he meets people at Walter Reed, they talk like the patients are depressed and sad, "but if they could hang around for a bit, I think they'd realize we're just the opposite, we're basically the same people we were."

He plans to continue in the Army after he's through therapy and found fit for duty again. Meanwhile he loves playing on the sitting volleyball team, especially the physical fitness part of it.

"There are a lot of things by having two limbs missing that I can't do just going to the gym, but this really gives me a good cardio workout. That's the main portion of it, and also because I'm competitive in nature, so I love getting out here and competing with the other branches," he said.

While Brent Petersen hasn't served in the military, he's been coaching the Marine Corps sitting volleyball team for three years; the Marines keep asking him back. He knows all his players' stories. Recently he was talking to one of his guys who kept resisting doing something productive, but eventually he came around and started volleyball and now he's surfing and doing all sorts of things that before he didn't even want to try.

"Adaptive sports re-validates these guys, and rather than a disability, I call it a re-ability because they're re-enabling their bodies to do something different and it puts them back into a unit, back onto a team and gives them hope for the next day," he said. "Hopefully it encourages them to encourage others to be ambassadors in helping get guys out of the darkness."

In the double-elimination battle, the Navy was knocked out of the final competition for the trophy, which the Marine Corps team in red won by defeating Air Force in blue in two of three games. Army in black was upended by SOCOM in white for third-place honors.

In the end though, the tournament was about showing the strength, togetherness, character and resilience of the country's wounded, ill or injured service members.

(November was designated Warrior Care Month by the Defense Department in 2008 to keep service members, their families and communities up-to-date on programs and initiatives being provided through the warrior care system.)