Athlete-mentors make "Major" impact

April 20, 2010, 5:42 p.m. (ET)

When Ryan Major came home from Iraq, he was not only wounded physically, but his spirit had been wounded as well.

A U.S. Army veteran who served 11 months on duty in Iraq, Major had to adjust to life in a wheelchair. At the time, back in 2006, thoughts of ever playing sports again were the furthest things on his mind. Major had, at one time, been an avid basketball player when he was growing up in the Baltimore suburb of Towson. But when he was injured in Iraq, everything in his life halted, including his ability to walk.  


Nowadays, he can say proudly that he has competed in a six-mile handcycling race in New York two months after picking up the sport, and he has even tried skiing and kayaking, two sports he had never attempted before his accident while on military duty.


“It took me a while, a long while, to get to where I am now,’’ Major said. “I was really down on myself.’’


Major is one of countless wounded servicemembers who have undergone rehabilitative treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who have become competitive athletes as part of their overall rehabilitation.


Some of these veterans make the transformation toward becoming Paralympic athletes. Others, like Major, aren’t sure where their sports journey will take them. But for the most part, these servicemen and women have come to see their involvement with sports as a benefit to their overall health and return to society following their tours of duty.


This week, nearly 225 athletes from the 2010 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams who competed in Vancouver and Whistler will participate in a variety of functions in and around the nation’s capital. The highlight, of course, is a visit with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and a tour of the White House.


But another very important activity is a trip to Walter Reed, where on Tuesday  Olympians and Paralympians will screen an abridged version of the documentary “Warrior Champions’’ along with patients and staff.  Among the athletes scheduled to be in attendance are two Walter Reed alumni, Melissa Stockwell, a Paralympic swimmer who competed in Beijing and Heath Calhoun, a double amputee and Paralympic alpine skier who was chosen at the U.S. Flag Bearer at the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.


“Warrior Champions’’ tells the emotional and inspiring story of a group of wounded American soldiers as they realize the powerful role that sport can play in rehabilitation and in life.


For Major, it is a story that hits close to home. Major was injured in Iraq on Nov. 10, 2006. He was a team leader during a night mission and was approaching an intersection in Ramadi. As he led his team across, Major stepped on an explosive. Although he suffered the brunt of the injuries, several of his team members also were injured. Not only was Major just two blocks from his destination at the time of the blast, he also was just two months shy of finishing his deployment.


Like Major, Calhoun also was injured in a blast in Iraq and spent nine months in rehabilitation at Walter Reed.


It will be inspiring for Major to see Calhoun. The two met previously and both worked with the same physical therapist. Major, 25, had never skied before his injury, but has come to love it as part of his rehabilitation. And he can appreciate the elite level Calhoun has achieved in the sport.


“Since my injury,’’ Major said, “I have tried a lot of things I didn’t do before. It really has opened my eyes.’’    


Seeing athletes such as Calhoun and what they have achieved also motivates other wounded soldiers like Major who are still experimenting with various sports as part of their therapy. Major usually comes to Walter Reed four days a week for various therapeutic work. Usually, he is scheduled for two-hour sessions, but sometimes he will spend up to four hours in one day at the hospital.  


“My main goal is to be completely independent as I once was,’’ Major said. “Having sports in my life is a huge plus. I have always been a sports fanatic. I think the only sport I didn’t participate in was hockey. Sports have been so helpful. It gives me something I can relate to in my therapy.’’


Heather Campbell, now a consultant for the military program with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Division, met Major shortly after he returned to the United States from Iraq. At the time, she was working at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., and because of its proximity to Walter Reed, she hadn’t worked with any wounded soldiers. Major became the first serviceperson she would treat.


“I remember him from Day One,’’ Campbell said. “He was extremely traumatized, and little and scrawny. He had a supportive family but he had a lot to deal with.’’


Her job as a therapist was to convince him that he could try all sorts of sports and activities. They tried ping-pong, played video games on the Wii and even visited some museums. She was coaching a wheelchair rugby team at the time and had Major come out to see what he thought.


Later on, Major was discharged from the hospital and started undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed, and as luck would have it, Campbell began working there last August. Major had started competing in a variety of sports events, mainly in handcycling, and Campbell got wind of his growing athletic prowess. When she saw him again, she was amazed.


“To see him progress from where he thought he was not going to do any of this, ever, to where he is now … well, it was terrific,’’ Campbell said.


As tremendous as his progression was, his story is not that unique.


“A lot of times the guys we get did sports before their injury and sports is part of helping them getting the pieces of their life back together,’’ Campbell said. “It is a really big for them and it’s also helpful for their socialization. They get to bond with their teammates.’’


And many of those teammates understand exactly what their new friends are going through on and off the court.


Major is looking forward to Tuesday when he will see some of the Paralympians who also know what it is like to serve in the military, suffer a major injury and turn their lives around with the help of sports. And Major knows that there are numerous Paralympic Military Sports Camps and opportunities for servicemembers.


Whether Major follows the path that military veterans such as Stockwell and Calhoun have paved remains uncertain, but their Paralympic success has already served as a Major inspiration.