Disabled Vet Finds New Ways to Represent Country
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 6, 2010 Army veteran Patrick McDonald loved serving his country, but after a tragic training accident in South Korea in 1991, his four-year military career came to an end.
Army veteran Patrick McDonald talks strategy with a teammate during a Paralympic curling match between Team USA and Norway, March 17, 2010, as part of the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Paralympic Committee
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A broken neck and back left McDonald paralyzed from the waist down. He was medically retired from service, and without the Army and the ability to walk, his livelihood began to fade. Never serving his country again was a devastating thought, he said.
“I worked hard to wear a uniform and in representing my country during my military career,” the former cavalry scout said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. “It’s what I wanted to do, and things were going great.”
McDonald began rehabilitation at the Pal Alto Veterans Affairs hospital in northern California, near his home in Orangevale. He was introduced to adaptive sports, and discovered what a powerful and positive impact sports could have. He also found a way to serve his country again.
McDonald took part in his first international competition last month at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, on the curling team.
“Being a Paralympian means a lot,” he said. “Learning about wheelchair sports, that’s where I knew I could represent my country again, but this time in sports.”
The U.S. wheelchair curling team was edged out 7-5 by Sweden in the bronze medal round. Another adaptive sports accomplishment McDonald holds is the U.S. Golf Association record for longest drive from a chair -- 358 yards. He also shoots to a 1.7 USGA handicap, he said.
McDonald also is training for the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London as an air rifle marksman.
Winning a medal in both the summer and winter Paralympics is a very important goal for him, he explained, but he noted that his life isn’t all about winning and glory. Living a happy life, whether you’re a hard-charging soldier or a disabled veteran, means setting goals and believing in your ability to accomplish them, he said.
Thousands of wounded warriors and disabled veterans have been down similar roads. And since after World War II, they’ve been taking advantage of the healing power of sports, whether in international play, at the VA summer and winter sports clinics or in their local communities. Adaptive sports can have a truly positive impact on everyone trying to overcome disabilities, McDonald said.
McDonald was in good company at the Paralympics. He was among five disabled veterans on the 50-member U.S. Paralympic team in Vancouver, all have probably thought at some point in their rehabilitation that competing in high-level athletics and representing their nation in the Olympic Games was a bit of a long shot, he said.
“If you believe in what you do, just do it,” McDonald said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not. Victory belongs to those who believe in it the most and who believes the longest.”
Veterans who competed in the 2010 Paralympic Games along with McDonald are:
-- Army Staff Sgt. Health Calhoun, who lost both legs to a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq and competed in alpine skiing. He also served as the U.S. flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.
-- Army Sgt. Andrew Soule, who won a bronze medal in the 2.4-kilometer sitting pursuit biathlon and competed in cross-country skiing. Both of Soule’s legs were amputated above the knee after a roadside bomb struck his Humvee in Afghanistan in 2005.
-- Chris Devlin-Young, a Coast Guard veteran, who competed in his fourth Paralympics as an alpine skier. He won four medals – two gold and two silver – in his previous games.
-- Sean Halsted, an Air Force veteran who became paralyzed from the waist down after falling 40 feet from a helicopter during a training accident in 1998 and competed in alpine skiing.
All five of the athletes were introduced to adaptive sports at their VA hospitals and VA summer and winter sports clinics, a recognition the VA is very proud of, said L. Tammy Duckworth, VA assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs and disabled Iraq war veteran, in an interview with American Forces Press Service.
“It’s something that’s been a long-standing tradition in VA, rehabilitating combat-wounded veterans [with sports],” Duckworth said. “And for the athletes themselves, it’s such an incredible part of their rehabilitation.”
Duckworth lost both of her legs and partial use of an arm after the helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004. She was introduced to adaptive sports at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, she said.
Just months into her in her recovery, she found herself in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the VA Winter Sports Clinic. Learning to ski without legs gave her an edge and confidence she thought she’d lost forever, she said.
“It really gave me something to work towards,” she said. “From the first moments of my injury, it set my standards really high, and keeping [disabled veterans’] expectations high is really critical to their rehabilitation.”
Adaptive sports do more than just make Paralympic teams better, Duckworth said. Disabled veteran athletes are raising the bar throughout the country. Either through setting standards and motivating disabled civilians or through “bringing new blood” to the games themselves, the veteran community is going to continue to have an impact on the Paralympics, Duckworth said.
“When you can see somebody who’s in the Paralympics nine or 18 months after he was blown up in Iraq, that’s extremely motivating four our country as a whole,” she explained. “It can quickly be motivating for a young kid who was in a car accident and lost his legs.
“People are going to be able to see these warriors achieving and excelling even with devastating injuries,” she continued. “It’s just good for the country as a whole.”