Memorial Day Brings Special Meaning at Opens

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | May 27, 2019, 6:46 p.m. (ET)

adidas USA Sitting Volleyball Team is one of two teams competing in the USAV Open National Championships Sitting Division with military ties
adidas USA Sitting Volleyball Team is one of two teams competing in the USAV Open National Championships Sitting Division with military ties

COLUMBUS, Ohio (May 27, 2019) – While the 90th USA Volleyball Open National Championships is taking place at the Greater Columbus Convention Center on Monday in Ohio, Memorial Day is not being forgotten by players competing in the Sitting Division as well as the other 482 teams participating in the Opens.

The Air Force has fielded a squad in the 12-team Sitting Volleyball Division that started on Monday. One of the team’s opponents is a group of Navy and Army disabled veterans competing under the team name adidas USA Sitting Volleyball.

“Our team is all veterans,” said adidas USA Sitting Volleyball team member Josh Laban. “It means a lot to us to participate on this special day of Memorial Day. This event is for our fellow soldiers who have been gone, but never forgotten.”

Team Air Force is competing in the Sitting Division of the USA Volleyball Open National ChampionshipsLucas Purser, who is playing for Team Air Force, was medically retired after nearly six years of service in the Air Force performing security forces roles. Memorial Day hits close to home for him.

“I had one person who I was close to pass away,” Purser said. “I would like to remember him today on Memorial Day. Being here with my fellow Air Force servicemembers and friends, some who I served with and some I didn’t - it is good to be around other Air Force people again on Memorial Day.”

“It is definitely special,” Team Air Force libero Kristen Morris said of playing on Memorial Day. “It is special to be around everyone else on my team and others who are serving in the military as we remember all our fallen brothers and sisters.”

The other sitting teams are comprised of players with and without disabilities on the same team. Further, current members of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Teams are intermixed on the non-military affiliated teams to help showcase the sport.

James Stuck, a member of the U.S. National Men’s Sitting Team and three-time USA Volleyball Male Sitting Player of the Year, knows full well the sacrifices many in the military have endured to protect freedoms the United States enjoys. While in the U.S. Army, he lost his right leg during a tour of duty in Iraq in December 2005 when his Humvee struck a roadside bomb.

“I was fortunate that I survived my injury and only suffered below the knee amputation,” Stuck said. “It could easily have been reversed where my family could have been remembering me. It is a hard one. Memorial Day and representing the flag and everything is great. I went from the battlefield to the court and playing sports at the highest level. I am just very gracious that I am able to do that and continue to function in a high-level sport.”

Laban said he was recruited into his team through the work of Elliot Blake, USA Volleyball’s manager of sitting volleyball. Blake had been serving as an assistant coach for the Navy’s Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor program, where Laban contributed to the Navy winning the 2017 and 2018 DoD Warrior Games Sitting Volleyball competition. Blake also leads the Sitting High Performance program.

“It is great having our former coach leading us again as part of the adidas USA Sitting Team,” Laban said. “He was coaching the Wounded Warriors Team Navy and recruited me to come play here. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come and participate.’ This is my first year coming and playing in this tournament.”

As much as the uniform is important in the military, so too it is on the court representing as a team. For adidas USA Sitting Team, USA is still emblazoned on their chest with their snazzy uniforms.

“USA Volleyball has such a great relationship with adidas,” Blake said. “When we knew that we were going to try and get a group of disabled veterans to play in the sitting division, we asked adidas if they would consider supporting the group, especially in honor of Memorial Day. adidas really came through for us, providing each of the players a full uniform kit to wear. We are very much thankful to adidas, and of course the veterans for their service. We hope that the veterans enjoy their time playing this week.”

While most of the disabled veterans that are on the adidas and Air Force teams are not classifiable for Paralympic competition, they are still helping to build the National Team pipeline by competing and providing reps for the players wearing red, white and blue.

“Our national team members need playing reps,” Blake said. “The more opportunities that our national team members have to play sitting volleyball against other people who have different levels of abilities and present new challenges to them, it is more chances to improve their game.”

Stuck is grateful that his comrades in arms have experienced sitting volleyball and other sports following their injuries sustained during their military careers. Such opportunities did not exist for him when he transitioned out of the military, and that has aided Team USA’s pipeline and current team’s ability to train.

“It is fantastic to see the growth of the game, but to have the military guys come out is great, it actually is beyond great,” Stuck said. “When I was injured I didn’t have these great opportunities to get out at such a high level of sport and play. To see these guys come out, regardless of how long their injuries have been, is really fantastic.”

Laban holds no illusion that his team will win the Sitting Division at Opens. This tournament is for fun, fellowship and remembering those veterans who have passed away.

“To have fun, be around all these veterans and get to play with people who already know the game,” Laban said of the team’s goals. “To come here for fellowship and camaraderie with all the players.”

Purser said Team Air Force came together this week from all over the United States and is using the USA Volleyball Open National Championships to prepare for a tournament that has pride and brotherhood all wrapped together – the DoD Warrior Games.

“We are training for the upcoming DoD Warrior Games in Tampa Bay,” Purser said. “This is kind of like a practice session for us, trying to get some camaraderie going, some team skills and friendship. We want to go to the Warrior Games prepared.”

Kallie Quinn, the competition specialist with Air Force Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports Program, feels the time spent playing in the USA Volleyball Open National Championships will prepare them for the Warrior Games.

“This is a great opportunity for our warriors to not only get playing time with each other on the floor, but also playing competition that has more experience than they do,” Quinn said. “This is an opportunity to grow as a team and get ready for the Warrior Games in Tampa.”

The Air Force has put a lot of focus on the possible rather than the flip negative side.

“We really have a philosophy of trying to show our warriors what they can do,” Quinn said. “They are so often told what they can’t do when they deal with an illness or injury or being wounded. We, across all our sports, focus on what you can do, and how we can adapt so you can do this.”

Morris, who was a pilot in the Air Force, grew up playing team sports and facing challenges on the soccer field in the sport she grew up loving. With a year of sitting volleyball now under her belt, she sees parallels from her military career to team sports.

“There are so many parallels in team sports and pretty much anything else under pressure – flying included. I played sports all growing up. I love the heat of the moment. I love the team atmosphere. Being a soccer player my whole life, I am very so a team-oriented player. You win together, you lose together.”

So on Memorial Day, we are all one team remembering those who have fallen in the line of duty serving the USA, no matter how those three letters are labeled on your chest.