Wounded Veterans Find New Challenges at USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp

Oct. 24, 2008, 7:29 p.m. (ET)

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Over the summer, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joe James watched a lot of the Beijing Olympics on television. How awesome it would be, he thought to himself, to represent your country that way.
How awesome it would be, for that matter, to take part again in sports. He lost parts of both legs in April in a bomb attack in Iraq.
Given the opportunity, James, 26, of South Bend, Wash., would simply have to make adjustments. Instead of running around the 400-meter track here at the U.S. Olympic Committee's training center, for instance, he could navigate it in a racing wheelchair.
James settled Wednesday into such a chair as the stumps of his legs -- the left gone at the knee, the right a few inches below -- sort of waved around. The sergeant is not the sort to feel humiliation at such a display. It is what it is. Nor is he interested in the least in anyone's pity. Pity for what?
Different doesn't mean worse. It simply calls sometimes for an extra measure of determination. And that proved much in evidence as James worked around the track, an able-bodied U.S. Navy medical corps staffer forced to race across the infield to catch up to him at the finish line.
"It was," James said afterward, "pretty neat."
The Olympic and Paralympic Games appear on our television or computer screens every two years and, at their best, produce heroes and moments of victory and inspiration. The years in between are filled with quieter moments of personal accomplishment. Such moments are, in their own way, just as fantastic.
Here Wednesday at the USOC center, south of San Diego, was U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian Schar, 26, of Crystal Lake, Ill. He, too, lost parts of both legs in Iraq, in a bomb explosion last September.
The torque of throwing the shot a few feet forward onto a grass field nearly rocked Schar off a specially designed throwing chair planted in a concrete throwing pit. For a few seconds, Schar was left danging by the side of the chair, clinging to it with just one hand.
Schar -- who earlier this month finished the Chicago Marathon, in 2:06.38 -- waved off any help. He muscled himself back up onto the chair. Then he held out his right hand, ready for another throw.
"Pretty cool," he said afterward of his first puts.
Here, too, was Derek Derenalagi, 34, a private in a British army infantry battalion. He lost his lower legs in the explosion of an anti-tank mine in July, 2007, in Afghanistan. He worked himself Wednesday into a racing chair and rolled around the track, caught his breath and set off again.
"There's more to life," he said, "than sitting in a wheelchair."
In all, 52 wounded veterans -- 46 American, six British -- took part in Wednesday's activities, the first day of a several-day camp at the USOC center aimed at identifying potential 2012 Paralympic athletes and, more broadly, at helping those wounded find both comfort and challenge in sports as part of the adjustment to life still filled with opportunity yet obviously different than before a serious injury.
"Our character is revealed in our time of testing," the USOC's associate director of community and military programs, John Register, likes to say, and that goes both for those who are disabled and those coming to terms with a disability.
Imagine, said Charlie Huebner, chief executive of U.S. Paralympics, that you're a 22-year-old soldier. You played high school football or basketball. You come home missing your legs. Your friends aren't sure what to say. For that soldier to hear something as simple and familiar as, "Let's go shoot some hoops" -- that, Huebner said, "opens a window that everything can be ok."
The USOC has been running such camps, along with smaller regional clinics, since 2005. It ran two such camps in 2005 and 2006, then only one last year because of the autumn wildfires that ravaged parts of San Diego County. The one that started Wednesday on the track -- the focus shifted Thursday to the pool and other venues -- marked the sole such camp for 2008 amid the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics.
Of the 213 members of the U.S. Paralympic team in Beijing, 16 had ties to the U.S. military, or 7.5 percent. In Athens in 2004, three of the 235 members of the American team, just over 1 percent, had military ties.
Because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials estimate that wounded veterans will make up 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. team that competes at the 2012 Paralympics in London.
The odds of any of the 52 who made their way Wednesday to the track in Chula Vista appearing in 2012 in a Paralympic uniform, American or British, are -- to be blunt -- long. But not impossible.
"This is Day One of a four-year journey," said British Army Maj. Martin Colclough, commander of the "Battle Back" delegation. "Some of these guys may drop out. But if even one of these guys gets there, this will be a job well done."
Scott Winkler, for instance, his legs paralyzed in an accident in Iraq in 2003, was identified at the October, 2006, USOC camp as a talent. He finished fifth at the Beijing Paralympics in the shot put.
Winkler showed up here Wednesday in his size 4-XL red USA team Paralympic Games shirt. Under a broiling afternoon sun, he helped coach Sgt. Schar and others, and said, "If you believe, you can achieve."
Also on hand: Cheri Blauwet, the 2004 Paralympic Games gold medalist in the 800 meters and winner of the Boston, New York City and Los Angeles marathons.
"It's all about increasing awareness and opening eyes and minds to the fact that people with disabilities can be active," she said. "It's the much bigger picture of what we're trying to do here."
She explained: "When we lower expectations because of a disability, we develop a sort of pity around the person." A better perspective: "A disability is just another way of being a minority."
Sgt. James, for instance, has a wife of three years, Jarin. They have a 14-month-old daughter, Rachel. Most likely, they have a lot of life yet to live.
His trips around the track Wednesday were his first-ever in a racing chair. He didn't tip over backwards -- didn't, as it's called, "turtle" the chair. He finished a lap in a little over 80 seconds.
Perhaps the start of an Paralympic journey. Perhaps a figurative step on the road to a fuller recovery.
It's all good. "For a first event," the sergeant said, "it's pretty neat."

To see photos from the camp, visit Universal Sports photo gallery.

Story courtesy Universal Sports.