Injured war veterans embrace new challenges in Paralympics

May 27, 2008, 12 a.m. (ET)

THEY STRETCH THE human spirit. They left this country whole and endured unimaginable chaos that most of us know only through movies and TV. They lived it.

There is a new attitude among U.S. servicemen and women who return from war missing an arm or a leg from a roadside bomb or skirmish with insurgents. They have a pervasive mind-set that says, "If something happens, I'll be able to deal with it."

For some soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, sports have become their salve. They are doing things they never dreamed - using sports to see different parts of the country, and, later this summer, a very different part of the world, China, for the Paralympics.

This is the story of three of these athletes, U.S. veterans who lost limbs in combat. Now, their sights are set on Beijing, one already a member of the U.S. Paralympic team and two in good position to qualify.

"You resign yourself to the fact that you might not come back whole, when you go over there," Jerrod Fields said. "But I don't know if I'd change anything. The highest level I ever did anything on was high school. Now with one leg and prosthetic limb, I might be doing something I never imagined."


 

Army Sgt. Jerrod Fields was on a reconnaissance mission in Baghdad on Feb. 21, 2005, checking out a report of a dead dog in the middle of a road; it's not uncommon for insurgents to place bombs in roadside carcasses.

What was thought to be routine almost turned deadly for Fields, who was driving the last vehicle in a convoy when a bomb went off, shattering his lower left leg.

"When it first happened, I started to laugh, because I thought I just dropped a grenade," recalled Fields, 25. He is no longer in the military but remains in communication with the men who served under him. "Whatever was on that explosive device was imbedded into my right leg, and I looked at my left leg and I noticed that most of it was blown away. I just started to pray; it happened so fast, living through a blast that I could have died from, that nothing really registered to me until I felt the pain. I mustered up the strength to keep driving."

Fields continued driving another 3 miles. The cabin of his Bradley armored vehicle turned into a small tub of blood. The vehicle gave out before Fields did, stalling and crashing into a wall. Fields transferred to another vehicle and out of harm's way. Blood and oil mixed, heating up the driver's compartment.

"I don't take the human body now for granted," Fields said. "What happened there went far beyond anything I was ever able to think I could do. I know what this body can go through; it can take a lot of stuff."

Adjusting to home was a different story. His wife, Kirra, and two daughters, Janyia (17 months) and Janise (5 months) were a little apprehensive when they first saw him - missing the lower portion of his left leg.

"My whole ordeal was I couldn't believe how well the Lord helped me to handle it," Fields said. "Family and friends would see me and they would be cold, at first, because no one knew what to say. I'd kicked them with my nub and now my family and friends hide my leg."

Fields hadn't run track or competed athletically since he was a student at Carver High in Chicago. Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant was one of his classmates.

"Jerrod is a huge inspiration," Avant said. "He's one of the most extraordinary human beings I've ever come across. When he told me he got his leg blown off, he told me it was the best thing that ever happened to him. I can't imagine what he's been through, but he's a hero."

Rehab was challenging for Fields, getting fitted with the prosthetic limb and learning how to walk with it. It focused him. Challenged him. Forced him to challenge himself. It got Fields involved with track training. Little did he know where it would lead.

He began running faster with one leg and the prosthetic limb than he did when he had two legs. He started working out and beating able-bodied college sprinters. Then other thoughts began cropping up.

The U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials will be held at Arizona State, June 12 to 15. Fields' best time in the 100-meter dash is 12.2 seconds, and 25.1 in the 200. He will need to knock off a second in each event to make the U.S. team, but he thinks he can do it.

"I wouldn't change a thing; I don't want to be normal; I refuse to wear a cosmetic leg," Fields said. "If everyone was ashamed of their disability, what type of inspiration would we have today? Look at burn patients or arm amputees. You see those guys as inspirations to keep going.

"I frequently get asked why I don't wear a cosmetic leg. I want to be an inspiration. My initial thought was to get back to my men in Iraq. Sports helped with my rehab, but I talked to my guys every day. I have some fans over in Iraq. They look at me as Sgt. Fields, the man who bled there and paid his dues. Now someone who might be going to the Olympics; a reality that's beyond my wildest dreams. But I do it for them."


 

Melissa Stockwell noticed it was easy to get into a pool for her rehab. She hadn't been involved in competitive swimming since she was 10 years old, but she knew all of the strokes. She dove competitively at Eden Prairie High in suburban Minneapolis, but that was it. She joined her first swim team in June 2005, a club team.

She suffered from one obsession: admiring the American flag. She lost her left leg below the knee defending it on a routine convoy through central Baghdad on April 13, 2004, driving in a Humvee. Army 1st Lt. Stockwell, 28, was the only person injured after a roadside bomb exploded underneath the vehicle, causing it to swerve out of control. The windshield cracked and the Humvee smashed into a woman's house.

Stockwell lost the leg, she figures, between the blast and getting it trapped against the guardrail. She was awake through it all, and now wears a prosthetic limb which she removes when she swims.

"I remember they put me in the back of a big truck and hurried to the closest aid station," Stockwell said, "which happened to be by old Baghdad International Airport. I was flown to an American hospital in central Baghdad."

Stockwell lost a lot of blood and came very close to losing her life. She prides herself in being a positive person, but that ordeal tested her. It pained her to see her grief-stricken parents. But Stockwell found an outlet - and another challenge - in the pool.

She became the first veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to make the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team, qualifying at the trials in early April at the University of Minnesota. In Beijing, she most likely will compete in the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter freestyle.

"I have no regrets; I'm extremely happy with my life and I'm very happy being where I am right now," Stockwell said. "There's no point to pity. What happened, happened. I can't go back and change things. I am where I am . . . I've always been a positive person. I can lose a limb and look positively. I've done so many things since losing my leg that I couldn't imagine. I never saw myself going to the Olympics. I dreamed about it, but I never thought it would actually happen. When they announced the team, I got emotional. Dreams do actually come true."

Now her next dream is to be standing on a podium as the American flag is being raised, with right hand over her heart.

"I knew I had to try to see how far I can get with swimming," said Stockwell, who no longer is in the military and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I always had this dream of looking up at the American flag, standing up on a podium and singing the national anthem. Well, I might be looking up, because I think I'd be crying too much to do anything else."


 

Scott Winkler likes to say he was raised to crawl, then to walk, then to run, "and now I'm back crawling again," the 35-year-old former Army specialist says with a hearty laugh. He's confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the midchest down after a freak accident in May 2003, in Tikrit, Iraq, where he fell from a truck while unloading ammunition, severely injuring his spinal cord.

His flamboyant side wasn't always there. He has undergone a life transformation - thanks to sports, particularly in throwing the shot put and discus. He will join Fields at the track and field trials.But Winkler wasn't always able to look at his new life jovially.

"There was a time I went through a lot of depression, anger, a lot of 'Why me?' a lot of denial," said Winkler, who was in Desert Storm in Kuwait and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Winkler plunged himself into sports. First, there was basketball, hand-cycling. In 2006, he was exposed to the shot put and discus at the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Camp.

In September, Winkler moved to the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., to begin training fulltime as part of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Veterans Paralympic Performance Program.

"You go there and try different sports; I didn't think I'd be good at anything," Winkler said. "But if the coaches at the USOC see potential, they'll ask for your information and give you a call. I competed in some throws, and when someone asked me for my information, I thought they were pulling my chain."

Winkler had never competed in the shot put or discus. He was a sprinter and long jumper at Shaler Area High, outside of Pittsburgh.

In January 2007, he went to a throwing clinic, and by March, he was competing - and winning immediately. By the end of last year, Winkler had broken three world records in the shot put, throwing 10.23 meters (more than 33 feet) at the Para Pan Am Games in August 2007 in Brazil.

Winkler throws from a seated position, and says he has never been coached.

"Sports has changed my life in a different way; I work now with the new patients at Champions Made From Adversity where we work with not just vets, but anyone handicapped, with volleyball, swimming, tennis," Winkler said. "What I get out of things now is that I help out other soldiers. My life has changed. Everyone takes life for granted, but until you become disabled, you don't realize what you have until it's gone. The medals I win and the records I break, that's for the U.S. That's my goal in life, to inspire people out there. I live by a motto - 'If you believe, you can achieve.' You just have to believe - I'm not done yet; I'm doing this more for other people than myself. That's all that matters."

Winkler is the vice chairman for Champions Made From Adversity, a private service that provides and coordinates sports and leisure activities for disabled veterans and their families.

"If I had the chance to do it over again, I would do it over again," Winkler said without hesitation. "The Paralympics give me one more chance to put a uniform on in my life. I fought for my country and now I win for my country."

(Find out more about

Winkler's organizations at: ScottWinkler.com or CMFA.us.) *

Send e-mail to santolj@phillynews.com.

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