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Recently Wounded Vets Get Intro to Therapeutic Sports

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 1, 2008 – More than 50 recently wounded veterans, including troops being processed through the disability evaluation system, are experiencing the healing power of recreation here through the first National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic Pilot Program.

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Marine Cpl. Sherman Watson (left), who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, and Eric McDaniel Jr., a former Army sergeant who suffered a stroke in training at Fort Bragg, N.C., participate in track and field events during the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego. Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Gene Davies

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The week-long clinic, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is giving the veterans – many wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan – an early introduction to the therapeutic value of recreational sports. Most of the participants are getting their first taste of sailing, surfing, kayaking, cycling and track and field events since being wounded or injured.

All receive treatment at VA medical centers around the country for injuries ranging from brain trauma and polytrauma to spinal cord injury and limb loss.

The clinic is the newest of five VA-sponsored events each year that give about 1,800 veterans venues to showcase their athletic abilities and creative talents while building bonds with other disabled veterans.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James B. Peake -- a retired lieutenant general and former Army surgeon general -- called the clinic a therapeutic extension of the top-quality care VA medical centers offer young veterans every day.

“The purpose of this clinic is to provide early intervention for veterans battling back from injury – not only strengthening their bodies, but overcoming and improving their mental well-being as well,” he said.

In addition to high-adventure sports and recreation, the clinic provides both formal and informal opportunities for veterans to share their experiences and help each other confront and overcome their disabilities.

Chris Chandler, a volunteer at the clinic who works with the U.S. Paralympic Team, described his personal path to healing as he led a group discussion on coping skills.

Chandler was a scout deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion when he lost his foot to a landmine in December 2001.

“It changed my whole world,” he told the group, noting that the injury stole both his independence and his ability to run competitively. “It was a huge passion in my life, and I felt like my identity had been taken,” he said. “I was very angry for a very long time.”

Veterans around the room nodded in understanding as Chandler told his story.

Today, Chandler credits his caregivers for helping him to get back on the track, racing through the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound program.

“People showed me a glimpse of the future, and where I could be if I wanted to,” he told the group. “It was one of the biggest things that helped me through.”

This week, Chandler said, he hopes the veterans -- particularly those just learning to live with their disabilities -- will recognize possibilities they may have considered lost.

“The philosophy here is to introduce veterans who may have ideals about things they think they can’t do, to a variety of new activities that they can do,” agreed Tom Brown, director of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Among the participants getting that introduction is Cpl. Sherman Watson, a member of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, who’s undergoing the disability screening board process. Watson was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, in February 2006 when a roadside bomb left him with traumatic brain injury – and his third Purple Heart award.

After two years of intensive rehabilitation, Watson is here this week, trying his hand at track and field events, kayaking and other sporting events.

As much as he loves the sports, Watson said, he gets even more gratification getting to know others who understand and relate to what he’s experienced.

“I like the camaraderie here,” he said. “I’m comfortable talking with the other veterans, hearing what they have to say and knowing that I’m not struggling by myself.

“Being here, I feel free, and I feel happy.”

Contact Author

Dr. James B. Peake

Related Sites:
National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic
Department of Veterans Affairs

Click photo for screen-resolution imageEric McDaniel Jr., a former Army sergeant who suffered a stroke in training at Fort Bragg, N.C., participates in the shot put during the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego. Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Gene Davies  
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