Wounded Warriors – Don’t Stop Asking

warriorgameslogoBy Terese Schlachter, Pentagon Channel Producer

“What was his injury?” the photographer asked me as we pulled away from Arnold Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  It was cold, dark and rainy, and the inaugural Warrior Games had just officially wrapped.

“You know, I don’t remember. Couldn’t tell, could you?,” I answered.

At that evening’s closing ceremonies, Special Warfare Boat Operator 1st Class Dan Hathorn, assigned to the Naval Special Warfare Recruiting Directorate East Coast,  was anointed “Ultimate Champion”- which means he ran two events, swam, threw a shot put and shot a rifle, collectively, better than everyone else. He graciously took time from his celebration to talk with us. I’d read his bio and knew he was a stand-out athlete, but had no recollection of what sort of illness or wound or incident had brought him to the Warrior Games.

It occurred to me only then that I hadn’t asked. Before, I always asked and the answer was mostly, “IED”.  Some seemed to find a bit of therapy in telling me the whole story – what road, why they were on patrol, where they were in the truck or for what reason they were on foot. And I remembered those stories. They stuck in my head like scars.

But when I stood on the side of the track and watched Cpl. Brandon Pelletier blast by me in the 1500 meter run I forgot what was wounded.  Later I saw his hand was wrapped and I remembered it was some sort of night operation gone awry, but wow, was that kid fast.

Whoa be it to the man or woman who winds up sitting across the volleyball net from Gunnery Sgt. Marcus Wilson. Everyone is sitting, but Wilson still towers over his opponents flapping and snapping his long, elastic arm over the net like the killer plant, Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors”. After one of the most nerve wracking matches of any kind I’ve ever seen, he stated the obvious.  “I have long arms and fingers and I just take advantage of them!” And, oh, yeah, he’s missing a leg. 

Army Sgt. Juan Alcivar walked toward me in the hallway of the Olympic Training Center’s Sports Complex One. He’s a big guy but had just suffered a disappointing loss at the hands of Wilson and his crew. He gave me a low-five as he headed courtside to double –hand pump Army fans into a frenzy as their wheelchair basketball team got ready to roll. He was limping more than I’d noticed in the past. Sniper fire. Lost friends. It’s important to cheer the living.

Sgt. Rob Laux is one of Alcivar’s new friends. They trained for the games together at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I saw Laux sitting on the side of the track, changing his shoes. It was a tough thing to do.  Sixty-five surgeries hadn’t given him back the use of his fingers. But that wasn’t what was bothering him. “I had a bad start in the 500 – looked around and everyone else was already moving,” he sort of laughed. “I should do better in the 1500.”

Since I am a cyclist I was dying to know how Staff Sgt. Carl Clendenning did on a snowy course up at Air Force. “I took fifth!” he told me, when I stopped him in the gym. A few weeks ago I asked him how fast he could go on his bike, downhill.  He said he’d had it up to 56 mph. And he has a traumatic brain injury, which sometimes causes him to swerve a bit. Clearly he didn’t see this as a reason to slow down.

The moral is not to stop asking. I think it’s important to understand what these warriors have been though in order to appreciate where they’re at. But that part of the story is far, far from the end.

A while back, I was listening to a military wife talk about her grief. She said she had needed to come to terms with the fact that she was not moving on. She didn’t want to move on. Not for herself. Not for her kids. But she did need to move through. The wounded warriors I met at the games may never move on. They will forever sport their scars, their prosthetics and their occasional forgetfulness. But they do move through. And their wounds become less of their stories. What they’re doing with their wounds perhaps because of them, is their new anthem.

To read more about the Warrior Games, click here.

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