WASHINGTON-The long history of military support for the Paralympic movement and veteran athletes continues to be strong in the nation's capital.
And because of that support, there is a good chance that many men and women who have served this country in a military uniform will one day represent their nation again on playing fields around the world.
In a ceremony Wednesday on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a new partnership to provide training and support for disabled veterans-both those participating in Paralympics and those involved in community level athletic programs.
"There's a great deal of history between the military and the U.S. Olympic movement," said Charlie Huebner, Chief of Paralympics of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "The very first president of the U.S. Olympic Association was a West Point graduate. If it wasn't for veterans following World War II, and rehabilitation specialists who determined that using physical activity and sports as a way of rehabilitation and re-engagement was important, the Paralympic movement would not exist."
This tradition of military participation continues to this day. Sixteen of the 206 members of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic team were former military, participating in sports ranging from archery to sailing. Huebner estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of future teams will be disabled veterans. Currently, there are 15 military and veteran hopefuls training for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and five training for the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki lauded these wounded soldiers not only for their contributions to the U.S. Paralympic effort, but also for the inspiration they provide.
"They show us how to live," Shinseki said. "It's about triumphing over adversity-mental first, and then physical. Too often, the world sees only their limitations. But, they remind us that it's about ability, not disability."
Although some wounded veterans will one day compete in the Paralympic Games, the major emphasis of the partnership isn't on the Paralympic Games but rather on disabled veterans competing in communities across America. Of the $10 million a year the Veterans Administration is providing for this partnership, $2 million will go to athletes training and competing at the Paralympic level. The rest will be distributed as grants to organizations, providing services, equipment and Paralympic mentors in regions across the country.
"That's where the need really is," Heubner said. "What we're most concerned about is what happens when somebody returns to a community, and what happens every day."
Currently, the U.S. Olympic Committee and more than 60 partner organizations are spending a little over $40 million a year in private money on sports programs nationwide for disabled veterans. Last year, the USOC alone awarded $1.5 million in grants to 55 communities.
The new money from the Veterans Administration will be distributed through the same USOC infrastructure, enabling an increase in services. While this is viewed as a pilot program-it is authorized through 2013-the hope is that the initiative will eventually be funded on a permanent basis.
"It means a lot," said 2008 U.S. Paralympic team member Scott Winkler, who has co-founded a community program in Augusta, Ga. "It means that now we can do more for the injured soldiers, and get the word out."
Winkler, a disabled Iraq War veteran, competes in track and field, and he set the adaptive world record for the shot put in 2007. Paralympic hopeful Kortney Clemons, also an Iraq War veteran, was also in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
Another big emphasis for the program will be on public education.
"A lot of times, the injured person is like, 'I just want to get going,' " Huebner said. "But it's that support network that at times says, 'Oh my God, my son is in a wheelchair now. What's he going to do? Is he going to be able to get a job? Is he going to be able to drive a car?' And, it's something as simple as going skiing again with family and friends that makes the light bulb go off in somebody's head, and they say, 'Oh wow, he's going to be okay.' "
But, the most important benefit will be improving the lives of disabled veterans, the officials said. Daily physical exercise reduces stress, reduces secondary medical conditions, and promotes higher achievement, both in education and employment. But mostly, it builds self-esteem and a sense of normalcy.
"The Olympic and Paralympic movement is about dreams, and some of those dreams are about young men and women that hope to represent their country at the games," Huebner said.
"But, there are also other dreams, and the bigger part of our mission speaks to the other dreams, especially as it relates to veterans,'' he added. "It's the dream of playing in the backyard with your son; it's the dream of playing basketball at the local gym with your buddies, and the dream of going to a local mountain to go skiing with your family and friends. And, that's really what this collaboration is about."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Bruce Troetschel is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.