Elite athletes who competed for Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games visited injured American service men and women at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.
With 16 Paralympic athletes who are veteran soldiers, sailors and Marines, Team USA came armed and ready with personal stories of how to overcome life-changing injuries. Their mission was to mentor newly injured military personnel on the rehabilitative benefits of sports and physical activity.
Prior to the visit, Marine Corps veteran and U.S. Paralympian Carlos Leon (N. Lauderdale, Fla./Athletics), who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, spoke to his teammates about their role as mentors.
"Our visit is about what we can do as Paralympians to influence these men and women," Leon told his teammates. "We just came back from an amazing trip, but there are people right down the road who may feel like they have nothing. They may have lost their God-given right to use their bodies.
"We have to teach them that there are so many more doors that are available to them now. Anything they ask for can be given to them, but they don't even know how to ask. There's no reason why we can't teach them how to go through those doors."
The U.S. athletes have a team goal to educate individuals with physical disabilities about the sport programs throughout the country designed just for them. Local community sport programs nationwide allow individuals with physical disabilities to engage in sport as a place to thrive within their own community.
Charlie Huebner, Chief of Paralympics and the son of a first Army Sergeant, spoke to military personnel and staff at the National Naval Medical Center. "We are fortunate in this country to have some of the best military medical facilities in the world. But it's when our service members go home that we want to make sure they have local community sport programs to use the benefits of physical activity and sport in the rehabilitative process."
One of the key goals of U.S. Paralympics is to provide Paralympic sport programming in over 250 local communities by 2012. As a means to reach that goal, U.S. Paralympics collaborates with the Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs, as well as Paralympic organizations and military medical centers throughout the country.
"Research proves that physical activity, especially for people with a physical disability, does several things. It reduces stress, it reduces depression, it increases self esteem, and it reduces secondary medical conditions. All the research in the world proves that physical activity has significant impact on their overall life," said Huebner.
"We also see that the peer process of working and playing together through sport has a deep positive impact."
LT Andrew Bookwalter, OMFS, is a surgical fourth-year resident in Bethesda focusing on neck, head and facial injuries, and feels that the most important thing that physical activity and sports can offer injured veterans is a sense of self purpose.
"One of the greatest things they can do after an injury is to try to be physically active, just to get out of bed," said Dr. Bookwalter. "It gives them a goal to focus on rather than their injury or their pain. It [activity through sports] can help with muscle strength, organ function, nutritional intake, improved sleep patterns, expanding the lungs, and just general health."
The research shows that physical activity can also help with the stress of dealing with the injury.
"It can be very stressful," said Paralympian Scott Winkler (Grovetown, Ga./Athletics), an Army veteran who suffered an injury in Tikrit which resulted in paralysis.
"When I came back disabled, it was total devastation. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was angry, I wondered why it happened to me, and just had to try to cope with it. It's very stressful but there are ways to get around it. You have to want to move on."
One of three Iraq war veterans on Team USA, Winkler competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, and he came to Bethesda on a mission.
"I've been in these soldiers' shoes already. I know what it takes to move on. Everybody goes through steps and all injuries are different. But through sports you are helping yourself physically, emotionally and mentally. Sport is a key thing in life."
Another service man who found healing through sport was Navy Petty Officer Casey Tibbs (San Diego, Calif./Athletics), a multi-sport athlete in high school. Tibbs lost his leg at age 20 in a motorcycle accident and found at age 27 that he was capable of being a world-class athlete.
Tibbs and his teammates won a gold medal and set a world record in the men's 4 x 100 meter relay in Beijing and he won bronze in the long jump.
For someone who had become an amputee, finding he could be a world record-setting track star was elating.
"A lot of doors started opening up for me with the Military Program that the Paralympics had implemented," Tibbs said. "Part of my duty right now is to pass on this knowledge to the new wounded warriors that there are doors open to them, and so many things can still happen through Paralympic sport. That's how it happened for me. I just pursued it."
Today there are more than 21 million Americans living with a physical disability, and many of these individuals do not have the opportunity to participate regularly in an organized sport program. More than 30,000 service men and women have been injured in the last few years alone. U.S. Paralympics, the Department of Defense and the National Parks & Recreation Association continue to lead efforts to make these programs more widely available.
With community and peer support, these programs can help injured service men and woman lead healthy, active lifestyles.
Angela Madsen, a Marine veteran and U.S. Paralympian (Long Beach, Calif./Rowing), was injured after a lifetime of athletics and found rowing as an activity she could participate in because she could do it seated. She is now active in running a California adaptive rowing program which welcomes veterans and civilians of any age.
"We teach people how to set goals and not limits. A lot of people come in timid and afraid and think they can't do it, but they learn how to set goals and they learn how to accomplish them," said Madsen.
"They can start doing that in all other areas of life. They start taking classes they might not have taken or they accomplish other kinds of goals. It spills over and it's all connected. They take more control in their life. They are changing their situation and I get to be a part of that. That's better than any medal."