New Pentagon Channel Program Documents Remarkable ‘Wheels of Courage’
By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2007 Some race around the track with the intensity of an Olympic sprinter. Others crash and smash in a full contact contest rivaling rugby. Still others push themselves through a grueling obstacle course laced with unexpected hazards. Each shares one common reality: life in a wheelchair.
More than 500 disabled veterans took part in a remarkable competition earlier this summer, and a Pentagon Channel crew was there to document their achievements. These athletes’ stories will be shared in a brand-new edition of the station’s monthly documentary, “Recon.”
“Wheels of Courage” takes viewers to the 27th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held this year June 19-23 in Milwaukee. Athletes from 45 states competed in more than a dozen different disciplines in what has become the world’s largest wheelchair sports event.
“The fun is the vets and the camaraderie and hopefully encouraging some vets and some women vets to participate in some activities in life, not be challenged by life but by challenging life,” said Angela Madsen, who served in the Marine Corps during the 1980s and was center for the Corp’s elite basketball team before an on-court accident left her paralyzed. “Hopefully some employers will see and people in society will see that disabled people can do a lot more.”
“I think the fact that veterans, active duty all have this community of being together, the brotherhood, the sisterhood of the military, I think, overwhelms the whole entire games,” said Tom Brown, director of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
The games allow disabled vets coming home from service in Iraq and Afghanistan to meet and compete with veterans from as far back as World War II.
“I just give it all I got,” said Russell Worth, who served as a petty officer in the Naval Air Corps in the final year of the “Great War” and whose 100-, 200- and 400-meter wheelchair dashes at the age of 83 are documented by the Pentagon Channel. “When you’re coming down that track, you know you gotta keep going and finish.”
Just because these athletes have lost the use of their legs, that by no means diminishes the ferocity with which they pursue their passion for sport.
Aaron Pollis, a military police veteran from Wisconsin competed in Quad Rugby, a high-speed cross between football and demolition derby that was dubbed “Murder Ball” in a recent documentary on the sport.
“You want to keep your speed up,” Pollis said, “because as soon as somebody comes up to hit you, they’re usually pushing with all their might to come up and hit you hard.”
“Some people get injured and they don’t know what to do in their life,” said Douglas Beckley, with Paralyzed Veterans of America. “They’re kind of sitting at home, (then) somebody talks to them about wheelchair sports and recreation activity; next thing you know, they’re here and they’re going, ‘Wow, life’s not over. There is life after injury. I can still do anything I want. I just have to do it in a different way.’”
Some athletes encourage able-bodied spectators to experience life from a disabled vet’s perspective.
“They should come and jump in the chair like this and see what it’s like,” Pollis said. “Anybody who’s an athlete, they’d get it right away. But it takes a lot on your upper shoulders and upper body to maneuver these things, and it’s fun just to do it.”
Athletes are divided into categories based on degrees of disability, age and past experience competing in the games. Some events are familiar, such as track and field. Deborah Dones, an Army veteran from Puerto Rico who served in Iraq, competed in discus and javelin throws at the games.
“Put your heart, your feeling, your soul in here, because there is value,” she said. “This is great. They can do this. We can do this. If I can, they can, no problem.”
Other events are unorthodox, like the “slalom,” during which wheelchair athletes must make their way through a course littered with gravel, sand and rock.
“Most have never done it,” said Tim Hays, head slalom official at the games. “Most get into the middle of that obstacle, and they have to teach themselves how they need to sit, how they need to maneuver their chair to negotiate it.”
Besides the satisfaction of competition, Hays sees practical applications learned from taking part in events like the one he officiates.
“This is what happens when you go down to the beach or you go into the wilderness or you want to go hunting, this is what the terrain is like.” he said. “Do you not go hunting, or do you accomplish it and go hunting?”
Army Spc. Jon Harris, who became an amputee after an improvised-explosive-device attack in Iraq, took on the demanding course. “It was rough,” he said. “It just felt like it was never gonna end.”
“We want these guys fully involved in life,” Hays said. “And one thing the slalom does is offer them some obstacles that they typically don’t do every day, but they are attainable, so that when they do encounter them, it’s not an obstacle.”
“We play hard, we play to the best of our abilities, and we play to win,” said Patricia Wilson, an Army and Marine vet from Texas, whose efforts in the slalom and many other sports were caught on camera for the documentary. “All the way to the last second, we play to win.”
“Recon: Wheels of Courage” debuts Aug. 6 at noon Eastern Time on the Pentagon Channel and will air throughout the month of August. The program also is available via podcast and video on demand at www.pentagonchannel.mil.
(David Mays works at the Pentagon Channel.)