Vets Wrap Up Wheelchair Games With Inspiration, Life Lessons
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
OMAHA, Neb., July 30, 2008 Nearly 500 disabled veterans closed the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games here last night celebrating new friendships made, new pride in what they’ve accomplished, and confidence in their abilities.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Felder, participating in his second National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb., said he was thrilled when his team won the coveted gold medal in basketball, but he gained even more sharing stories and experiences with fellow participants. Felder lost his left leg in a 2006 motorcycle accident but has received approval to remain on active duty as an F-15 crew chief. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Gordon H. Mansfield praised participants in the world’s largest annual wheelchair sports competition during the closing ceremonies and urged them to take home the lessons learned here.
Mansfield said his message to the veterans boils down to four simple words: “You can do it.”
“For the young ones, whether it’s going back to school or going through job training or starting a family or getting a job, you can do it -- just like you can do it here playing these games.”
And for the older veterans, Mansfield reminded them, “You can keep on doing it.”
The wheelchair games bring individuals together, randomly assigning them to teams that have to work together to be competitive, he said. “The starting point is that they are veterans, and we are building on what they have learned as veterans: how to work hard, how to train, how to figure out the way to get something done, and then how to work together to make it better.”
For many, this reignites the sense of camaraderie they experienced in the military. Mansfield said he’s touched to see the way the veterans support and cheer each other on -- in many cases, even those they’re competing against, Mansfield said. “That’s the attitude you find here,” he said. “It really is unbelievable.”
For Tricia Labar, a former Army private first class with knee and spinal cord injuries, the last day of the wheelchair games was bittersweet. Proudly showing off the gold medal her team earned in yesterday’s basketball finals, her third gold medal of the games, she said she couldn’t believe how quickly the five days of events had flown by.
“I love these games,” said Labar, here for her 13th straight year. “I love these guys,” she said of her fellow disabled veterans. “But I hate when it’s all over.”
Labar said she remembers reluctantly attending her first wheelchair games shortly after finding herself in a wheelchair. She was overweight and withdrawn, and her stomach churned with nervousness about what was in store for her.
But participating in the games changed her forever. “By the end of the week, I was so excited. I was counting the days until the next one,” she said.
Now trim, athletic and highly competitive, Labar said she loves the challenge of the games, but also the many friendships she’s built attending them. “This is like the world’s largest family reunion,” she said. She reaches out to new “family members” -- recently disabled veterans -- to share her excitement about the games and the lessons she said they instill.
“When you get home, any time you find yourself hitting a wall, you can say, ‘I did the Super G [slalom] and made it all the way through, so I can do this too,” Labar said. “Not everyone is an athlete, but what you experience here can help you through any challenge that comes your way. It really does make a difference in your life.”
Like Labar, Raul Acosta, a Marine veteran, said he renewed old friendships and built new ones during his ninth year at the wheelchair games.
“I love coming back and enjoying the camaraderie here. We all feel like family catching up,” said Acosta, who had his right leg amputated due to complications from cancer surgery.
With his gold medal from the basketball competition dangling from his neck, Acosta said the games help show younger veterans they, too, can excel. “That’s the big lesson here,” he said. “It’s one of the big things I’ve gotten out of these games.”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Felder, who lost his left leg in a 2006 motorcycle accident but will remain on active duty as an F-15 crew chief, said he accomplished everything he’d set out to do during his second wheelchair games. His team won the gold medal in basketball -- the most coveted award of the competition, he said -- but he gained much more on a personal level, as well.
“I got to meet a lot more of the new people and spend time talking with them,” he said. “It’s great being around people in similar situations and being able to share stories and network. Everybody wants to win. But being around here and getting to learn from each other is inspirational.”
Felder didn’t skip a beat when asked if he plans to return next year. “I’ll be here, without a doubt,” he said.
The games are cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, with financial assistance from corporate, civic, and veterans service organizations.
In addition to the wheelchair games, the VA cosponsors three other national rehabilitative events: the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, the National Veterans Golden Age Games and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
In September, the VA will host a new summer sports clinic pilot program. That event will introduce water and adventure sports such as sailing, surfing, kayaking, cycling, and track-and-field events to recently injured veterans.