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Wounded warriors fight back through Paralympics
His mind-set changed Oct. 9, 2004, when, while protecting civilians and cargo on a bus in Baghdad, his vehicle was struck by several explosives. When he awoke from a medically induced coma a few weeks later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Guitard had lost his right leg above the knee, had his left leg fused with a titanium rod and had blurred vision in his right eye. A stroke after the blasts also left him partially paralyzed on his left side, coping with a traumatic brain injury.
"When I came out of the coma, my first words were, 'I am a strong man,' " Guitard says, proudly. "I have been proving that ever since."
Last week, after pedaling his handcycle in the Marine Corps and New York City marathons on successive Sundays, the 22-year-old husband and father of two joined 29 fellow service members in San Diego for a U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Summit. The summit was established to help assist severely injured service members in their rehabilitation and return them to healthy, active lifestyles through participation in sports.
"Sports allow them to become very productive, to become a whole person again, regardless of their loss," says Sandy Trombetta, director of national disabled veterans winter sports clinics for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "Sports provides the bridge back to a quality of life."
Says Steve Bosson, 34, a cavalry scout from Ft. Hood, Texas, who lost his lower left leg in Iraq to an insurgent's grenade: "It's all about getting back up on my feet and realizing I have options."
Bosson, Guitard and the others enthusiastically participated in four action-packed days of introductory sports clinics and heated competitions in archery, cycling, sitting and wheelchair volleyball, swimming, sailing and track and field. It was the second of two summits introduced this fall as part of the USOC Paralympic Military Program, an ongoing, collaborative effort among the USOC, military installations and commands, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralympic organizations nationwide.
Participants came from Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Naval Medical Center San Diego as well as U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities to imagine, and in many cases realize, their wildest dreams.
"It's all about continuing to find freedom freedom outside of my injury," Guitard says.
Chang Wong, 23, of Alhambra, Calif., who lost both legs in Iraq on May 23 when his tank was blown up, says: "It's all about seeing everybody who got injured be happy and be able to do things. It's all about living life how we used to live it, instead of, 'Oh, that's their handicap.' "
No risk to try something new
Another outcome of the summits is to identify and inspire future members of the U.S. Paralympic team.
For example, retired Capt. Leslie Smith, 36, of Tappahannock, Va., who became an amputee in September 2002 after the stress and strain of a Bosnia peacekeeping tour exacerbated a blood disorder and caused a clot in her left leg.
Smith, who works in public affairs for the Department of Defense at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center in Dahlgren, Va., has completed four marathons using a handcycle, including the 2005 Marine Corps and New York City events. At the conclusion of the San Diego summit, after coaches saw her great all-around talent, Smith was asked to try out for the U.S. Paralympic sitting volleyball team.
And to think, three years ago, when she emerged from surgery to amputate her left leg below her knee, her first words were: "I used to be a cheerleader."
No longer relegated to the sidelines, Smith arrived in San Diego determined to improve her use of her new swimming prosthetic and to counsel the newly wounded soldiers.
Instead, she wound up riding a bike for the first time since losing her leg, racing the other participants in a three-lap time trial around the San Diego Velodrome. A mini-stroke in March left her blind in her left eye, creating challenges in balance and depth perception, but she finished in 1 minute, 50 seconds.
"Where's the brake?" Smith shouted as she sped past the starting line on the brake-less, fixed-gear bike. "Can you fall off this thing?"
"I was holding on with a death grip," she says. "It was the scariest thing I've ever done."
Loss of identity overcome
Tim Gustafson counts his blessings and his "alive days" every time he crosses one of life's finish lines.
"They're almost bigger than birthdays," says Gustafson, 28, of the alive days, a term he learned from Vietnam veterans he met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Gustafson, who lives in Clarksville, Tenn., counts forward from Jan. 24, when he was injured on patrol in eastern Iraq as his vehicle struck a bomb. He suffered two severe compound breaks of the right tibia, and his leg was amputated below the knee.
While lying at Walter Reed, waiting to see his wife for the first time since the accident, Gustafson was filled with concerns: "My life is over. I will never walk the dog again. My wife will leave me. But then God answered my prayers. Janice appeared and told me she hadn't much liked my stinky right foot anyway, that she'd married me for me. It was a breath of life for me."
And a breath of life for them as a couple. By late March, Gustafson was up and walking on his prosthetic. He and Janice decided to focus on training for the Hope & Possibility 5-Mile Run in New York's Central Park on June 26, as a way to celebrate his five-month alive date.
That goal was followed by the 5K Tunnel to Towers Run in New York on Sept. 25 and the Army Ten-Miler on Oct. 2 in Washington. "I didn't question why God had allowed this to happen," he says. "I focused on what God had given me. A rebirth. A life anew. I wanted to run with it."
He is taking online courses toward a computer science degree at Austin Peay State University, and he hopes to return to active duty as an officer. He also would like to give the Paralympics a shot.
"Right now, I'm focused on taking what I have to the next level," he says. "There's a saying I try to cling to in my recovery process: 'Where the mind leads, the body will follow.' My recovery is facilitated by setting goals and creating challenges. Ironically, I'm a better athlete now, and I don't worry about wanting what I don't have."
Register, an NCAA All-American in track and field at Arkansas, had his left leg amputated above the knee in 1994. He went on to win the silver medal and set a U.S. record in the long jump at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.
"There are issues with identity, with socialization, with people who've lost a limb or are in wheelchairs," Register says. "The first things they think of is, 'How can I get back up?' Then, it's, 'Who am I now? Am I still a wife, a husband? A mother, a father?' During all of that chaos, when sports are introduced, they bring a sense of, 'If I can do this, what else can I do?' "
Bosson came to San Diego a month after his amputation too soon to be fitted with the proper prosthetic but he was game for anything, including biking the velodrome with one leg.
"When I got off the bike, I almost couldn't crutch over to the bench to sit down," he says. "My leg felt like jelly."
It's that determination, he says, that will get him back to rock climbing, hiking and camping. In late March he plans to walk the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile trek through the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Wong is equally as unstoppable. After his mother slapped him out of his depression on the Fourth of July, he declared his independence from his injury by setting a goal to walk and drive. As he quickly progressed to prosthetics with spring feet, he thought, "Why not run? Jump? Why not make the most of it?"
Wong says: "I've opened up my mind to challenge myself. I'm tired, but happier."
And there's no keeping up with Guitard. Hours after participating in his first-ever event, the Hope & Possibility 5-Mile Run in New York's Central Park on June 26, he flew to the 25th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Minneapolis. There he competed in six events, including wheelchair bowling (rolling a 261 game). He won a bronze medal in table tennis. He got hooked on archery at the summit. His wife, Melissa, 23, says, jokingly: "He was real active in the military, but he's a lot more active now. I could use help in the kitchen department. I could use another hand. I wish he'd get active in it." Not a chance. At the conclusion of the San Diego summit, before heading back to Walter Reed, Guitard handcycled the Silver Strand Half Marathon from Coronado Island to Imperial Beach. His next goal? A degree in counseling. He's also aiming for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games in table tennis, handcycling and archery.
Guitard is living the motto that Smith, the cheerleader-turned-marathoner-turned-Paralympic sitting volleyball team hopeful, reiterated at the summit: "AMPlify your life!"
"Sports is an avenue that has opened up to us to go down, to
challenge ourselves, to expose ourselves, to try things we may have
done but at a different level," Smith says. "When I'm playing
volleyball, I see myself in the hospital bed, and I think, 'I don't
know what happened to me but look where I am now!' "