WASHINGTON, Nov. 21, 2015 —
An undefeated Air Force team won gold at the Pentagon's sitting volleyball tournament Thursday, as Marine Corps veterans settled for silver and the Army battled back to win bronze.
Air Force hosted the 5th Annual Warrior Care Month Joint Services Sitting Volleyball Tournament and took first place after winning five straight matches. Kari Miller said she was retiring as the Air Force's coach on a high note. Her team had come close to gold this summer at the Warrior Games, but left Quantico with silver. This week was their time to gel, she said.
Air Force dominated round-robin preliminary play in the morning, beating Navy, the Marine Corps and Army. Then they came back in the afternoon to overpower Special Operations Command in the semifinals, 25-19 and 25-17.
In the gold-medal match, Air Force beat the Marine Corps 25-15 and 25-20.
In the bronze-medal match, Army dropped the first game to SOCOM, 25-20, but came back from behind to win the second. Army took the final game, 15-13.
"We are so proud of you," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told all the sitting volleyball athletes.
"To those who are wounded warriors, we have a special reverence and a special debt and a special respect," he said, "and it grows even greater when we see the sports proficiency you're able to show."
Army Sgt. Stefan LeRoy
Medically retired Army Sgt. Stefan LeRoy related how he came to take up the game of sitting volleyball. He was injured in Afghanistan helping carry his wounded buddy on a stretcher to the medevac helicopter. His buddy had been injured by an improvised explosive device and, while carrying the stretcher, LeRoy was himself wounded by an IED that took his legs.
Before LeRoy received prosthetic legs, he became physically active in order to help himself pull through the dark days by trying out wheelchair basketball, but he admits he’s not near as good shooting from a chair as he was from a standing position.
“I think Warrior Care Month is a great thing to show people how sports and the Warrior Training Command has been helping us continue our recovery… these events really showcase what we’re all capable of doing in adaptive sports,” said the 24-year-old, who plays on the Army team. “We have great sportsmanship, comradery and great spirit because, while the injuries may be a different, we still know the struggles and mindset of each other.”
Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Crane
While stationed in Guam in the Western Pacific and about four years into his Air Force enlistment, then-Staff Sgt. Daniel Crane was leaving a buddy’s house one evening. After he got into his car, a local man approached him and shot him with a shotgun at point-blank range. Fortunately, his friend came to his aid.Using his trouser belt, his friend was able to keep Crane from bleeding out. His right arm was barely attached, and it had to amputated.
Crane got into sitting volleyball about six months ago. Though he thought it would be really difficult for him, he said he picked it up quickly and made the Air Force team. He also competes in track and field, swimming, archery, air rifle and pistol and indoor rowing.
He suffers from chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and spinal nerve issues, sciatica as well as muscle pain in his right shoulder – and he said he’s still going through a dark time.
“I just don’t show it… I try to put on a smile because I know if I can be inspiring to somebody by playing these adaptive sports, then that’s all I want to do to keep helping others,” Crane said.
One way he’s inspiring fellow service men and women is that he was right-handed, so not only has he adjusted to not having the arm he’s used all his life, he’s been learning how to be a southpaw or leftie.
Crane recommends adaptive sports for servicemembers who are “wounded, ill or injured because often you get retired and become secluded, so these team and competitive sports bring you back into a team atmosphere with your military brethren,” he said. “It gives you a sense of purpose and that right there does wonders for you mentally, spiritually and physically.”
When he’s not working out… which is most of the time… he works as a CrossFit trainer at two gyms and, with two combat-experienced veterans, runs a non-profit organization called Wounded Wodders, which raises funds to pay CrossFit memberships for wounded, ill or injured warriors.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Maria Gomez-Mannix
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Maria Gomez-Mannix – the sole woman on the Navy team -- is battling breast cancer. She’s had more than a few surgeries and bouts with chemotherapy, and she faces another surgical procedure on Nov. 23.
“I know I’ll be laid up for a little while, so I’m here just trying to have as much fun as possible,” she said. “Going through chemo changed my energy level for sure, so it challenges me to come out and use all the energy I have and make the most of it.”
Though she played stand-up volleyball for many years, she said she enjoys the seated version because it helps keep her upper body strong by forcing her to use hands and arms as legs to slide from position to position on the court while also preparing to hit the ball.
“I think everybody that’s part of the Wounded Warrior adaptive sports program would say they feel honored and privileged to be able to play on these teams,” she added. “It helps recovery, not just emotionally and physically, but the friendship and comradery we make -- there’s nothing like what you have in the military. It’s just unfortunate this program wasn’t around for the Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans; it could have helped so many of them too.”
Marine Corps Cpl. Gabriel Beltrus
On the Marine team, five-year veteran and retired Cpl. Gabriel Beltrus played his version of a “one-armed bandit,” pushing himself around the court and playing both sides of the ball with just his right arm, since his left is paralyzed and in a tight-to-the-body sling.
He was injured while serving with an air wing in Okinawa, Japan -- something he didn’t want to elaborate on other than to say “one thing led to another and stuff started going wrong, a big chain reaction.”
“This event is something special that we get to do with other service members and it keeps us in the fight, motivating others by pushing ourselves and enduring,” he said. “We might look different, we might seem different, we might seem like we’re out of the fight, but we’re always motivated and pushing past whether it’s for ourselves or that one person we might reach out and touch.”
Going to school full-time, going through physical therapy and hoping to gain something in his arms again, Beltrus is also enrolled in a university pre-med program shooting to be a future neuro-surgeon.
“My body doesn’t control me – I control me – it’s one of those things I learned as a Marine – adapt and overcome; change things if they’re not working and make things work for you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter… it’s what you put into it and what you want out of it, so that’s what I aim for – yeh, there’s a lot of oorah motivation.”
Restoration of Mind, Body, Spirit
Cheering on the Special Operations Command team made up of special warfare operators from all the services was Army Col. Cary C. Harbaugh, director of Care Coalition at SOCOM at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
“All these adaptive sports events are about restoration of mind, body and spirit and so all that we do with adaptive sports from the sitting volleyball tournament, through the Warrior Games to the international Invictus Games, but all the wellness events that we do such as golfing, sailing, archery, all this has amazing benefits,” he said. “Part of it is the physicality of it, but it goes beyond that, it also goes to the way they interact with each other and the peer-to-peer mentorship.
He addressed the Invictus Games which will be held in May 2016 in Orlando, Florida, and where wheelchair rugby will be on the agenda.
“We played it the first time at the first Invictus Games in England, and I will tell you, it was one of the most exciting sports matches I’ve ever been to, including professional sports in the U.S.,” he said. “The gold medal was U.S. versus U.K. – we lost in a squeaker to our friends in the last nine seconds, but the passion, the contact -- it was one of those things where I, as a spectator, along with being somebody who cares about these guys so much, I was saying, we need ESPN covering this.
“If the U.S. public had seen it, they’d be begging for more,” he continued. “It was beyond exciting with 9,000 of the London citizenry on their feet – it was really rockin’ and touched these guys, just amazing.”