This is the first part of a four-part series on participants of the USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp held at Naval Station Newport in Newport, R.I. We will feature a different participant each day of the Camp.
NEWPORT, R.I. - Don Davis has no scars. He doesn't walk with a limp or use a wheelchair. His injuries are not visible, but Davis is one of the thousands of service men and women who were diagnosed with the "signature wound" of the Iraq war.
The day before Davis left his hometown of Olympia, Wash. for the USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp held at Naval Station Newport in Newport, R.I. he was experiencing a bad migraine. Even after his arrival the migraine was still there, but he refused to let it affect his attendance at the Camp.
"I had a hard time flying because it was really hurting, but last night that kind of went away," said Davis.
After returning home from Iraq in 2007, Davis was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). At first, his injury stopped him from being as active. Now he refuses to let that happen.
"Sometimes I get migraines so bad that they are crippling," said Davis. "I can't even get up and move. I used to be super active, but sometimes it's difficult to even get up in the day to move. Sports make you get up and get going though."
For the next three days at the Camp, Davis will be getting up to participate in a wide variety of sports, some of which he has never heard of before. He is excited about the opportunity to learn new activities, techniques and to be back with his fellow Marines.
Davis served 23 years in the United States Marine Corp before retiring in November. He was deployed on a total of seven combat tours and 10 police actions, including three tours in Iraq with his finally two being served back to back in 2005 through 2007. On December 19, 2006, Davis' truck was hit by an IED and the floor was blown out from under him resulting in a head injury.
This was not the first time Davis had experienced an explosion. Within a five month period, he had been through three explosions.
Yet he remained active in Iraq until his return date in 2007. Upon his return home, the 44-year-old went to the Navy Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) where he was diagnosed with TBI. He would spend 18 months in rehab as part of the Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care (C5) program at NMCSD going through cognitive and speech therapy.
"I was an angry patient at first," Davis recalled. "I thought I was a little bent out of shape, but I didn't think I had a TBI."
Serving as a Special Forces Physician Assistant for more than 13 years, Davis knew what test results looked like for those who were not injured.
"Being that I was a provider, I knew my tests showed damage to my brain," said Davis. "I could especially tell when I couldn't remember the picture they were showing me during one of the memory tests. I didn't know what to draw once they flipped the picture around."
TBI has been labeled the "signature wound" for those serving in Iraq. Thirteen of the 51 participants at the Camp have been diagnosed with TBI.
The Department of Defense reported in March that out of the 1.6 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of troops that may have suffered a brain injury could be as high as 360,000, most often caused by roadside bombs. According to the Pentagon, of those, 45,000 to 90,000 veterans have persistent symptoms that require specialized care.
Davis said TBI affects each person differently depending on the type of injury the person sustained. It could range from mild to moderate to severe.
"When I came back I was answering questions in a different language," said Davis who speaks 10 languages. "Over time some of those things fix themselves. I still have a slower thinking and word search process. Sometimes I can't think of some words even though English is my first language."
After returning home to Olympia, Davis' rehab options, who often refers to the rehab process as "a way of getting humpty dumpty back together again", were limited. He goes to therapy weekly if he is lucky enough to get an opening.
There are no structured programs in his hometown like there were in San Diego which is one reason this camp is so important to him. He is back in a structured environment with fellow service men and women who have been through the same thing he has been through, but he also has a new found appreciation for those men and women who sustained injuries different from his.
"When I did the racing chair (for track) today, although I was only in a wheelchair for a very short time, it was an interesting eye opener," said Davis. "It gave me a greater appreciation for my fellow wounded warriors that are in the wheelchair all the time and for the daily trials and challenges they experience everyday in the chair."
Through this camp, Davis hopes to be able to find an activity that might help him regain his balance.
"Because of my injury I was walking the streets like I was drunk," said Davis. "I had a big loss of balance and the ability to maintain balance. It was hard to get back into running. That's why my medical coordinator at NMCSD recommended I come to the Camp, to try and get a reintroduction back into sports, to get more active and try new things. It's all to help in the rehab process."
The Paralympic Military Sports Program recognizes the need for these Camps in the rehabilitation process for injured service men and women. These men and women can still participate in sports, but might have to go about it in a different way.
"For me, this is a continuation of rehab," said Davis. "The more you learn, the more pathways you open, the more you open your mind. It all helps speed up the healing process."
Davis is learning new sports alongside Paralympic athletes and coaches, including Paralympic thrower and Iraq war veteran Scott Winkler.
"Scott was making it really interesting and fun today," said Davis. "He was a world record holder and was picking on all the guys to try and throw it out there, challenging them to bets. Where else can you go and be taught by a world record holder? It's really great."
For Davis, this Camp is a learning process and a way to get back into sports. While he doesn't have any aspirations to be a Paralympian at this time, he is grateful for the experience. Most importantly he is grateful to feel the camaraderie again with his fellow wounded warriors.
"It's just nice being around my fellow Marines again," said Davis. "I'm enjoying my time here so far. It's been a lot of fun."
Once he returns home from the Camp, Davis will continue his vocational rehab and will continue "to get humpty dumpty back together again."
"I just focus on the journey," said Davis. "When you go to climb a mountain you have to go step by step by step. You don't just rush to the top. It takes a while to get there and my journey will take a while."
Hopefully this Camp will help him in speeding up the process.
Michael Johnston (San Diego, Calif.) was the first recipient of the McDonald's Athlete of the Day award on the first day of the USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp at Naval Station Newport. Johnston participated in rowing and track and field. He also challenged Paralympian Scott Winkler to a throwing contest.
"There were a lot of good athletes out there today, but I'm excited to receive the award," said Johnston. "It was a lot of fun."
Pam Grainger (United Kingdom) received the Visa Leader of the Day award.
"I just enjoyed myself, so it was a bit of a bonus to get something from enjoying your day," Grainger said.
Grainger participated in the track and field and archery events. She was a quick learner and showed a great interest in the archery portion of the camp.
"I learned a lot from running because I changed the way I do it which is good," said Grainger. "I really, really enjoyed archery though. It was such fun and I kind of got the hang of it which made it better. I will continue that when I go home."