There’s life after a debilitating injury but you won’t find it in a hospital bed.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games and other adaptive sports programs help Veterans integrate into the community through sports like wheelchair basketball, rugby, downhill skiing, surfing and more, but it also introduces Veterans to another world outside the walls of a VA medical center.
That was the message Monday at the Games’ expo. Companies set up shop to showcase new improvements in health care products. But the health and fitness section kept busy advertising an array of other opportunities, including bass fishing, paralyzed racing, hunting, hiking and more – most of it free or little cost to Veterans.
That hit home for Marine Corps Veteran Adolfo Rodas. A stroke put him in a wheelchair and led to treatment for post-traumatic stress.
“You know, I came back from the war and I wasn’t well. I was messed up but didn’t know it. I didn’t know I was depressed,” he said. “But after my stroke, started talking to my doctor, got help, got medication and my God, I’m a new man.”
Then came adaptive sports.
“At first I was afraid to try any of this,” he added. “I was afraid to get on an airplane. My therapist said, ‘Don’t worry, I got you.’ Now I’ve been to the Winter Sports Clinic, Summer Sports Clinic and the Valor Games. I’ve gone surfing, sailing, archery and now I want to get more sports under my belt. I owe it to VA. They did a lot for me.”
Bree Podgorski from Warfighter Events said there are even more opportunities for Veterans beyond VA’s adaptive sports programs.
“We have 125 chapters in 41 states and offer 50 different sports,” she said. “And thanks to our sponsors, Veterans don’t pay a penny.”
Some of those sports include martial arts, mountain biking, kayaking, tai chi and rafting. There are more than 100 different events planned throughout the United States in 2018.
“I love what I do, and I love getting people outdoors and enjoying themselves,” she said.
“I just care about it and want humans to be treated like humans and know that people care. I think it’s important to tell everyone about this. There are places in rural areas where people don’t know about these real opportunities.”
Rodas was ready to sign up.
“Archery is my favorite, but I’ll sign up for everything she has so I can do this all year.”
Alan Earl, representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Pro Bass Tour and Sports Program, was at the next booth extoling the virtues of a rod and reel. It’s personal for him.
“I’m a paralyzed Veteran and a fisherman,” he said. “I was a fisherman before the accident. Just because you’re in a wheelchair, you can still enjoy getting out doing what you did before you got hurt. Adaptive sports are the best therapy you can ever have.”
His program offers five events along the east coast this year. Although there is a cost, every penny is returned in prize money for fish caught. Veterans can fish from shore or in a boat.
Raul Acosta, a Marine Corps Veteran who lost his leg to cancer, found out about the fishing program at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York. Now he wants to get it started in Miami, Florida.
“I play basketball, but look, not everybody can play basketball or wants to play basketball,” he said. “There are so many opportunities here and there’s nothing like it. It’s a great experience, and now I need to pay it back for the newly injured Veterans who don’t know about all these possibilities. They need to know that life goes on and how great it can be.”
Those looking for more adventure stopped at the PVA Racing and Fitness booth, which offered information on extreme mountain biking, regardless of disability. Bryan Steere, an Army Veteran who lost most of the feeling in his body due to spinal stenosis, showcased some new, high-tech handcycles, some with motors to assist with movement.
“Everything PVA does focuses strictly on the Veteran and how to get the Veteran more engaged,” he said. “You can’t stay isolated. These are made to get people out, to help them adapt to their condition with a new lifestyle.”
And when you learn to adapt, you start to heal on a whole health level, said Parnes Cartwright from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. That’s something paralyzed Veterans learned for themselves shortly after World War II.
“Our association was actually started by paralyzed Veterans in 1948,” Cartwright said. “We grew from there and have people of all ages and different ability levels. We have a 7-year-old who plays in our youth league and I think our oldest player right now is 68.
“If a Veteran gets involved in this sport or any of these sports – on any level – it will help the body heal. It will help the mind heal. It will help the spirit heal. The wheelchair doesn’t get in the way of that. The wheelchair is just a tool to continue enjoying your life.”