Wheelchair rugby makes debut for Warrior CARE Month

  • Published
  • By J.D. Leipold
  • Army News Service
Fifty-pound wheeled chariots made of steel, aluminum and over-sized wheels were the modes of battle Nov. 16 as teams of joint-service wounded, ill and injured kicked off a demonstration of wheelchair rugby.

It was the kickoff -- as it were -- of Warrior CARE Month and of the Joint Service Wheelchair Rugby Exhibition at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Since the sport is on the schedule for the 2016 Invictus Games slated for May 8-12 in Orlando, Florida, a major objective of the exhibition was to give players the opportunity to showcase their talents in hopes of being one of the 11 players who will represent the American team.

The players, who mostly suffer from spinal cord injuries, didn't exactly tackle their foes, but they jammed into each other grappling for the ball. There was plenty of bone-jarring clangs of metal on metal echoing around the gym as the medically retired and active-duty warriors made jolting blocks, reached out to steal the ball from the laps of their opponents, then passed or fast-wheeled it downcourt where a teammate could cross the goal line for a hard-earned point.

Rugby made its Paralympic debut as a demonstration event in Atlanta in 1996 and then became a medal sport in the 2000 Sydney Games, where the U.S. team won the gold medal. The game was first developed in Canada as a team sport for quadriplegic athletes, and was originally known as "murderball" because of its intense physical nature. Once introduced in the U.S., the name was changed to "quad rugby," but it became more commonly known as wheelchair rugby.

The rules are straightforward -- two teams of four play four eight-minute quarters on a basketball court. They must pass or bounce the ball every 10 seconds as they make their way to the goal line.

The exhibition started with a demonstration match between two teams from the U.S. Quad Rugby Association out of the Atlantic North Region -- the Maryland Mayhem and the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital Punishers.

After a lunch break, ad hoc teams from the services were formed -- Big Red Bruisers, Cherry Pickas and the Spartans. By vote of the onlookers who came to see what all the noise was about and to share in Warrior CARE Month -- the Cherry Pickas were deemed the winners.

For one retired Army staff sergeant, who lost his left leg due to a roadside bomb, wheelchair rugby was something to get psyched over. Even though it was his first time playing rugby, he's a regular on the Army wheelchair hoops team.

"Wheelchair basketball is what got me started in adaptive sports; it was the first I ever played since I got injured," Alexander Shaw said. "Today, I got introduced to a new one in rugby and there's more contact … I like rugby better… it's a very stress-relieving sport.

"Basketball is more of a team-oriented game, but this is more individual and involves pushing skills, so I don't have to face a person in front of me … for me it's more exciting because basketball has more rules," he said. "This really keeps me in shape … some people call me 'Pops' because I'm 47, but I don't look 47 because I keep active in my life and being a positive person keeps me going forward."

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Green, who suffered spinal cord, shoulder and arm injuries when unloading equipment from a truck he fell off while deployed to Kuwait, has been with the adaptive sports program for about 18 months. He's expected to be medically retired in the next five months or so.

"There are certain things that I'm going to miss, but at the same time, doing adaptive sports still gives you that sense of pride," he said, adding that he also participates in seated shotput, seated discus, archery and air rifle. "You may be off the battlefield per se, but you're on the field in a different way with adaptive sports.

"Adaptive sports has made me a better person, I think, because I've seen people who have worse injuries than I do and seeing the positive attitude they have is helpful in allowing me to offer help to others because whether it's injury, depression, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), we can share the different ways in which we're worked through issues," he said.

Medically retired Marine Cpl. Jorge Salazar lost his legs in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in 2012. Within three months he started playing wheelchair basketball. Being the tallest on the team has been a huge benefit, he said. He jokes that while everyone is limited to a wheelchair seat height of 21 inches, he has an arm span of 6’3”, which gives him a great advantage at keeping the ball away from the opponent. With wheelchair rugby, the ball rests in the player's lap unless it's being passed or dribbled every 10 seconds.

"I can't run anymore, but I can push really hard in a wheelchair now," he said laughing. "It's been confidence building and allowed me to network over the last three years … the biggest impact is the friends from all the services that I've made … it's a whole other family.

"It's important to remember that some wounded, ill or injured have problems during recovery and feel forgotten," he continued. "People just need to remember that they're still here, still alive and they're still fighting. Just because their active-duty service time is over, that doesn't mean they're done serving the country. For me, it's about supporting each other and helping each other to move on."

When Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jason Caswell was stationed in the U.K. in 2010, he could often be found in his off-time playing his favorite rough and tumble sport. On one play during a game in September, he suddenly found himself the victim of a compound fracture, leg folded over the wrong way, the bone sticking through his skin. It was the last time he would play the running version of rugby.

Four years and nine surgeries later and either in a wheelchair or hobbling around with crutches, it was discovered that he had continued to get around for at least six months with his leg still broken. The final solution was amputation.

Amputation was a tough pill, one that Caswell admits put him in a "really dark place" -- he pushed his wife and family away, watched TV from bed all day and piled on the pounds.

"The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program and their sports program I was introduced to actually pulled me out of that darkness and showed me that while I may be hurt, I may be injured, but my life wasn't over, it's just taken a different path," he said.

"This is my first time playing wheelchair rugby … I'm loving it," he continued. "This connects me back to … well, the pinnacle of who I am. I got hurt playing rugby, was told I'd never play rugby again and here I'm playing rugby. It's just a dream come true and then to just find out I made the Invictus Games -- I can't wait to tell my wife and friends."

Thinking back on what he went through, there are things he regrets, like pushing his family away because he felt he couldn't be the husband or father that he wanted to be.

"Life is a series of events, one on top of the other, so it's important to have that support structure whatever it is, anytime you get in that dark place, find that one little light and grab hold of it and don't let go because the next thing you know there will be another rung to that ladder and you're just steadily climbing all over the top," he said.