Mentors Give Warriors Chance to See Beyond Injuries
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 14, 2010 As the action on the volleyball court heated up here this week, U.S. Paralympic athlete James Stuck watched from the sidelines, checking out the military talent.
U.S. Paralympic athlete James Stuck talks on the sidelines of a sitting volleyball game at the inaugural Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 11, 2010. Stuck, an Army veteran and an ambassador for the Paralympic organization, works with wounded servicemembers. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“That one girl has potential, but we need to know more about her injuries,” he said to a fellow Paralympic athlete.
Across the U.S. Olympic Training Center campus, Paralympian Russell Wolfe wheeled up and down the archery line, bumping fists and encouraging the troops competing for the gold medal at the inaugural Warrior Games here.
“I saw great potential. It makes me think that maybe 2012 will be my last year with the Paralympics, because if these guys are coming up and I’m getting old, it might be time to pass the reins,” Wolfe joked.
Stuck and Wolfe are part of the Paralympics ambassador program and have worked as mentors with troops before. They’re both military veterans, and they can connect with the troops off the court as well.
They understand what it’s like to serve in uniform. They know what it’s like to face life-threatening injuries, and they understand the desire to become “normal” again. More importantly, they have gone beyond normal to show the troops that they can do everything they did before, and sometimes more.
“I’ve been where they’ve been. I know how hard it is,” Wolfe said. “I don’t give anybody pity. I’ve been paralyzed for 13 years. I know these people are new injuries. I know they’ve come back from a war. But you know what? Life goes on. So you’ve got to start living again. You can’t live in the past. You’ve got to get up and go.”
The U.S. Paralympics has had some type of ambassador program since its inception, but it formalized its efforts about three years ago. About 30 of its athletes serve as ambassadors traveling the country, talking in schools, visiting hospitals and rehabilitation facilities and working with the roughly 150 Paralympics sports clubs. Officials hope to expand the number of sports clubs across the United States to 250 by 2012.
Stuck said he met a Paralympics ambassador at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 2006 while he was recovering from a roadside bomb blast. Stuck was serving in the Army in Iraq in 2005 when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.
While recovering, Stuck started attending Paralympics camps, working with the athlete mentors. A former soccer player, Stuck said he enjoyed sitting volleyball, because the teamwork and camaraderie reminded him of his favorite sport.
He kept in contact with the Paralympic coach and team captain and eventually expressed his desire to train for the team. In February 2007, he was invited to train full-time with the team.
Now, Stuck is in a position to help those who are where he was a handful of years ago.
“A lot of people get down on themselves,” he said. “Some guys blame other people. It’s a big snowball effect, and you hit a downward spiral. We try to avoid that. We try to turn it around to bring them back up.”
The majority of the mentors’ influence is not wielded in their words, though, but more by their presence on the court or the field. They work with the servicemembers, giving them pointers on the sport.
It is their example that speaks louder than any motivational speech, Stuck said.
“We try to show people that there is life after amputation. You can go about your normal daily activities after you get injured,” Stuck said. “Even if you don’t want to go into sports and become an athlete, you can still go on doing everything.”
In fact, Stuck said, the athletes often end up doing more than they could before their injuries. Before his leg was amputated, Stuck said, he had never skied or snowboarded. Now, he is active in both sports.
Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, called the ambassador program one of the organization’s most-important roles.
“We need to do more of it,” he said. “We need to get those ambassadors out to more installations, more schools, more communities. They are great role models. They’ve been there. They’ve had the struggles. They understand the obstacles.”
The veterans especially connect to the soldiers during their recovery, he said.
“I can’t go and talk to a kid at Walter Reed [and say], ‘You’re going to be OK. Just get out there and work hard,” Huebner said. “A veteran can, because they’ve been there.”
Wolfe is a veteran who medically retired after 11 years on active duty when noncombat injuries left him paralyzed. When he first wheeled into the archery training session here, most of the troops thought he was just another “Joe” in a wheelchair, he said.
When troops find out he’s a Paralympic athlete, something deep down registers that life goes on past their injury, Wolfe said.
“I love to see their eyes light up. Something clicks. It’s like a light switch: ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said he tries to pass on what it takes to compete at his level.
“It’s not something that you can just go out and do,” he explained. “It’s hours upon hours of training. It’s more than I thought [it would be]. The hours I put in are unreal.”
Wolfe spent three years spending his own money for coaches and training, just to be able to put his name in the hat for the team.
Finally, he got the call.
“All I want to do is give [the Warrior Games athletes] the knowledge I have,” he said, “because I know how hard it was for me to get it.”
Both Wolfe and Stuck said troops have the core makeup of a Paralympian: discipline, fitness and motivation. Though that is just a start, they said, they try to pass on to the troops that the “sky is the limit.”
“I’d love to see them out there trying to compete for my spot on the team,” Wolfe said. But competitor that he is, he has no intention of relinquishing his spot. “They’re not going to get it. But they can try,” he added.