Everybody has a story.
LaVern Anderson lost his right leg below the knee. But staying hidden in his house wasn’t an option.
Bryan McCrickerd, a former Army combat engineer, wrecked his back on the job. After five surgeries, he can walk a little bit, but spends a lot of time in a wheelchair.
And Pat Romero, who was busy doing whatever needed to be done was “voluntold” to come here this week.
Everybody has a story at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, July 30 to Aug. 4 in Orlando, Florida. But no matter the story, the reasons all intersect – there’s no place they’d rather be.
The Wheelchair Games are an annual event co-hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. About 600 Veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other neurological issues come from the U.S., Great Britain and Puerto Rico to compete in more than 19 events such as wheelchair basketball, rugby, power soccer, handcycling and more.
This is Anderson’s first Wheelchair Games after losing his leg two years ago. He immediately got back into sports and had friends who told him about the event.
“I originally hurt my ankle twice doing PT, and the ankle fusion went bad,” he said. “I lost the leg when I was 45. I already liked to play basketball and coach. The hard part for me was getting used to the chair.”
The Charleston, South Carolina, native will compete in basketball, softball, bowling and the 100- and 200-meter handcycle.
“You got a choice,” he said. “You can sit up in your house or you can get out, meet people and have some fun. You can’t let life pass you by.”
McCrickerd rolls next to Anderson and taps him on the shoulder.
“I’m sending you back home!” McCrickerd yells.
The two laugh and then hug.
They met at that Valor Games back in May and will compete against one another here.
“These games, they give me a new outlook on life each time I come out,” said McCrickerd, who traveled from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “I got hurt on the job in the Army, carrying a lot of weight, but it really got bad a few years ago after I had all the surgeries.
“My depression would be a lot worse without events like this. But when I come here, it’s a different story. Seriously, if it weren’t for these games, I wouldn’t be here today.”
McCrickerd’s son, Ryan, 17, said that depression can affect the entire family.
“Because of my dad’s injury, I have to help him get his socks and shoes on and help him do a lot of those things we take for granted. After a while, you see how this affects him. If his depression is at a 10, that affects the family to a level 20. So we help him deal with this the best we can. You can see the difference in him. Each time he comes back from these events, he has a big smile on his face for a week.”
Down the hall, Paralyzed Veterans of America representatives and volunteers were busy setting up souvenir tables where people can pick up patches, stickers, keychains, T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the Wheelchair Games logo – an athlete with fire exploding from his chair. All the money raised goes back to PVA, which advocates for paralyzed Veterans.
“I started working at PVA because I was in a car accident,” said Joanne Poretti, an office manager for the Veteran group’s central Florida office. “I was in rehab for a year and spent time in a wheelchair and realized how important this is. These Veterans learn life doesn’t end after an injury and life goes on. That’s what we try to show them.”
That’s what inspires Barbara Romeo and her husband, Pat.
Barbara, who normally spends her days fixing and setting up computers at the Orlando VA, took time off to volunteer at the event. She was busy fanning out the yellow polo shirts and pulling other items out of boxes. Then the husband-and-wife team helped carry and set up equipment elsewhere.
“We’re the ‘Whatevers.’ Whatever they need us to do, we’ll do it,” Barbara said. “I’ve been doing this VA job for 18 and a half years, and there is honestly not a better population in the world, and these people are the most inspiring.”
Pat said his wife told him he didn’t have a choice about working here this week.
“She ‘voluntold’ me,” he laughed. “She brings me out to all these events, but it’s going to be a great week. There’s no better place to be.
“These men and women, they have sacrificed so much for us and for our freedoms. This is really a small price to pay back,” he said. “Their attitude should inspire everyone. We get mad when we get cut off on the interstate. And yet you look at some of these people who seemingly have lost everything, and they come back to do this. They appreciate every moment.”