James Stuck and John Kremer traveled similar roads to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games. Their comparable journeys include the war on terror, a first-hand meeting with land mines, leg amputations and overnight stays in a German hospital.
The next avenue they went down was the road to recovery. Now they are a combination that passes and sets for the U.S. men’s sitting volleyball team, which has five military veterans on the 12-man roster.
Dan Regan, Jese Schag and Josh Smith also served in the military. The injuries of these three were non-service related. Stuck said the presence of veterans in the Games is inevitable, though.
“You’re starting to see more and more veterans participate in disabled sports because so many of them are coming back from two wars fought overseas, and it’s making it tougher to make the Paralympics,” said Stuck, a setter on the sitting volleyball team the last six years. “So making the team is an honor.”
Stuck, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, said he doesn’t remember his Humvee hitting a roadside bomb or the subsequent blast that took his leg. He said those with him that moment on Dec. 20, 2005, in Kirkuk, Iraq, told him the vivid details.
“I remember doing a convoy operation to provide security for the engineers who were doing road construction,” he said. “We drove the entire route and then started on our way back. About halfway back we got struck. My right leg below the knee was shattered, and I was completely knocked out.”
Stuck said his turret gunner’s arm was severed on the spot, and that his co-pilot suffered a concussion. He said his buddies pulled him from the wreckage and wrapped a tourniquet on his leg to slow the bleeding. Stuck got medevaced to base, and then sent to Germany, where he faded in and out of consciousness. He said he could barely feel and wiggle his toes.
“I woke up on a ventilator in Germany but didn’t know what happened,” Stuck said. “A doctor told me what happened, and then I passed back out.”
His conversations seemed more of a dream than reality — until he woke up for good and asked his bedside nurse if he still had his right leg.
“She looked at me like I was insane,” Stuck said. “So I asked her again and she looked me square in the eye and said ‘No.’ I started crying. That’s the hardest I ever cried in my life.”
Stuck refused to let it get him down. Within five weeks of losing his leg, he skied the slopes on one leg. He walked intermittently on his new prosthetic 5-10 weeks after the explosion, and he completed a 10-mile race just 10 months after the blast.
He got into sports through the Military Paralympic Summit and fell in love with volleyball. He worked with the men’s national team and became its setter. In his spare time, he plays outside hitter on an able-bodied team and has dabbled in beach volleyball.
Much like Stuck, Kremer had to deal with a land mine.
Kremer went into the Navy as a hull technician and worked his way through dive school and then explosive ordinance disposal school — both in Florida. He served three tours in Iraq before getting orders to Afghanistan.
While out on a mission to clear a hill of land mines in the Kunduz Province near Tajikistan, he stepped on a land mine. Kremer said he remembers flying into the air and then landing hard. He reached up to wipe the dirt and dust from his eyes, and then checked to see if he still had his legs.
“I looked up to check my left leg and all I saw was blue sky,” Kremer said. “My right leg was badly damaged, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
He was sent to the medical station and then to Germany for a couple of days. The Navy flew him back to the states and doctors determined it was best to amputate his right leg below the knee, since he would deal with problems in his heel the rest of his life.
Kremer’s daughter was born 12 days prior to his injury in September 2010, so he made it his next mission to learn how to walk with her. By December, he learned to walk unassisted — no canes, crutches or wheelchairs — on two prosthetics. He began running in February and skydiving shortly after. He completed a 10K race one year to the day after his injury.
The Navy Warrior Games team reached out to gage his interest in their upcoming games. He tried out for wheelchair basketball, volleyball, shooting and swimming. Volleyball became his sport, and playing the libero position has become his specialty.
“I’m a decent hitter, but I’m better at passing and digging,” said Kremer, who retired from the Navy as a first class petty officer (EOD1).
Schag, also a setter for the volleyball team, served in the Marine Corps from June 2008 to October 2011 and discharged as a lance corporal.
“I joined to serve my country and protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Schag said. “When I got injured I started playing sports and was in the first two Warrior Games for the Marines.”
He participated in sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and the 50-meter backstroke.
Smith, a middle hitter who comes from a family of military members, served in the Marines from 2005-15 and reached staff sergeant (E-6) in rank. He actually wanted to join the Army, but said the recruiter “no-showed” on him twice, so he walked down the hall of his high school and met a Marines recruiter. He deployed to Iraq from October 2008 to May 2009.
Regan is a 44-year-old middle blocker who served in the Army National Guard from 1994-2006. He was the USA Volleyball Male Sitting Athlete of the Year in 2011, just six years after a boating accident led to amputation of his right leg above the knee. His deployments were all stateside.
“At the time I felt everyone needs to serve their country in some form or another, be it military service or public service,” Regan said.
Now the quintet will wear the red, white and blue as one unit, once again for their country.
“Being in the military comes up in joking, but there’s definitely a special bond because it is Team USA,” Kremer said. “We’re all there competing for each other and for our country. Everybody feels that passion to compete for Team USA”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.