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Iraqi War And The Paralympics


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Interesting piece from the Sunday Times:

By London 2012 war veterans are expected to make up 15 of the US

Paralympic team. By BRIAN DOOGAN

DENVER - Josh Olson wiped the sweat from his brow and went through a

mental checklist. What's the wind doing? Is my position wrong? My point of

aim with my rifle, am I seeing exactly what I'm looking at? Do I need to

sit up and take a break? First on the shooting range at the United States

Olympic Training Center on a blustery Colorado morning, he was on target

to reach a score in the high 580s, low 590s but he wanted to be closer to

the 600-point maximum, such is the standard in Paralympic competition. "If

you drop more than three points in a match, you might as well pack up and

go home," the 27-year-old above-knee amputee acknowledged before returning

to a prone position and taking aim at his target 50m in the distance.

America's first Paralympic athlete to be nominated to the army's World

Class Athlete Programme, Olson is in the vanguard of the US Olympic

Committee's (USOC) quest to transform active-duty military personnel and

veterans who have physical disabilities into aspiring Paralympians. By

2012, when the Paralympic Games will be held in London, veterans of the

Afghanistan and Iraq wars are expected to make up at least 15 of the US

team. Now a non-commissioned officer and marksmanship instructor stationed

at Fort Benning, Georgia, Olson was deployed in the invasion of Iraq in

March 2003. Seven months later he was leading his squad of eight soldiers

on a late-night patrol near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul in

northern Iraq, when they came under ambush. A rocket-propelled grenade

(RPG) struck the first of their two Humvees, bringing both vehicles to a

standstill, and in the subsequent engagement Olson was hit by a second RPG

that ripped through his right leg.

"I got knocked down and it scared me a little bit because I didn't know

what had happened," he explained after completing his practice. "So I said

to myself, 'Calm down and stand up, get back in the fight and everything

will be fine. You have a job to do.' I tried to get back up but I couldn't

move and thought it was because all my equipment was lying on my stomach

and my chest. I tried to roll over and push myself up that way but I

couldn't roll over. So I did a physical inventory, checked my hands, went

down all my equipment and picked up my left leg, which hurt the worst.

There was a lot of blood on it and it felt like it was on fire, as some

really bad shrapnel had got into it. My right leg, I couldn't move it at

all and my boot was slumped over to the side. I reached down to see where

it was hurt, so I could try to do self-aid on myself, but I felt a big

hole and realised I didn't have anything large enough to bandage it up.

Eventually, I was helped back into the vehicle and taken to an aid

station.

"The good Lord must want me here for a reason because I was in pretty bad

shape. My femoral artery had been severed and had retracted up a little

bit and I was fighting hard to breathe. It was my upper-body strength and

the great cardiovascular shape I was in which left me able to hold enough

blood in up top to keep me alive. I said a prayer, looked up and closed my

eyes and, if it was my time to go, it was kind of, 'Enjoy the ride'. They

induced coma when we got to Mosul because of the blood I was losing and

took off my leg, then flew me to Germany and on to Walter Reed Army

Medical Center in Washington DC, where I woke up six days after getting

hit. My mom and dad and my girlfriend at the time were standing by the bed

and my first thought was, 'What are they doing in Iraq? Don't they know

there's a war going on?' It took me a day or two to come back to reality."

The rehabilitation process took much longer. Olson lost 5st 7lb in a

couple of weeks and his gaunt face and shrunken body exacerbated the shock

of losing his leg. "I wanted to cover up the mirror because I couldn't

stand the look of myself," he recalled. Slowly, through interacting with

other veterans at Walter Reed who had similar injuries, his outlook became

more positive. "There were guys missing both legs and some guys were

missing both legs and an arm," Olson revealed. "There were a lot of brain

injuries and the more I looked around, the more I began to realise that

maybe I don't have it so bad."

Just as important for Olson as being able to maintain a sense of identity

and motivation to move on was the opportunity extended by the military

command in alliance with the USOC. "Ever since I was a little kid watching

John Wayne play the hero in war movies, and still to this day, I just

think that being in the military is the coolest job that anybody has ever

had," Olson insisted. "The offer to remain in the army as a marksmanship

instructor was a real boost for me but part of the pitch from day one was

that I would also train to be a Paralympic athlete, and today I look at

myself more as an athlete because I'm getting paid to shoot in competition

for the army. I still have a long way to go before I'm a world-class elite

shooter but I'm far more proficient now than I was when I entered the

programme four years ago. I was placed in the top 10 in the world

championships in 2006 and, if it all works out, I will go to Beijing as a

Paralympian, representing the United States, and this is what I'm focused

on."

The US Paralympic Military Programme is the brainchild of John Register, a

Gulf War veteran and a regular contender at the US Olympic Trials in the

400m hurdles throughout the 1990s until a severed artery in his left leg,

which resulted from an awkward landing over hurdles in training for the

1996 Olympics, culminated in its amputation. His belief that sport can

enrich the lives of people with physical disabilities, while helping to

change public attitudes towards the disabled, led to his involvement with

the Paralympic movement. As associate director of Development and Outreach

for the US Paralympics, Register was instrumental in the launch in 2003 of

the US Paralympic Academy, a grassroots programme that exposes young

adults to a variety of sports, and in March 2004 he organised a basketball

clinic at Walter Reed for disabled veterans, the forerunner of the

Military Sports Camps that the USOC now stages twice a year.

Funding comes directly out of the USOC's budget and more than 300

personnel have taken part in the projects, from the Military Sports Camps

and competitions including this weekend's Endeavour Games in Edmond,

Oklahoma, to the World Class Athlete Programme which Olson is pioneering.

Casey Tibbs, a US Naval petty officer and below-knee amputee, was the only

serviceman in the American team at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where

he won a silver medal in the pentathlon and gold in the 4x100m relay, but

up to a dozen are vying for places in Beijing. Given that the Stoke

Mandeville Games (held in 1948 for military personnel with spinal cord

injuries sustained during the second world war) gave birth to the

Paralympic movement, the USOC's growing support structure for war veterans

is likely to be flourishing by 2012.

Scott Winkler was unloading ammo in May 2003 in Tikrit when he fell off

the back of the truck and sustained horrific spinal cord injuries. "One of

the privates cut the strap and didn't pull it all the way off, it got into

my boot and I didn't realise until it was too late," he explained. "It

dragged me down a 6ft drop and when I hit the ground my rear end was

facing where my front should have been. I lost my bowels and bladder and,

if the injuries had gone any higher, there would have been a big risk of

cardiac arrest." Mentored by Gabe DeLeon, a quadriplegic who has competed

in multiple Paralympics, Winkler discovered a natural aptitude for

throwing the discus and shot put and, having already set national records,

is close to breaking the world's best mark in both disciplines.

Incredibly, he is currently training for Beijing without a coach,

preparing himself at the YMCA in Augusta, Georgia, where he has a year's

scholarship ahead of the Paralympics. "I go to a big field, transferring

into my throwing chair and putting all my implements into my everyday

chair. I throw five shots and five discuses and then get out of the chair,

retrieve them, get back in the chair and keep that going for two hours

solid," Winkler said. "Gabe found me and encouraged me but apart from a

throwing clinic in Tampa, Florida, I've had no other contact with him. I

went to the Olympic Training Center last month but since then I've been

back to doing everything on my own. Having a militarised background, you

adapt and I've learnt different techniques that work for me. For six

months after my accident my head was full of thoughts like, 'What am I

supposed to do with myself? Will I be able to take care of my family?' It

was only last year that I was introduced to Paralympic sports, and what

this experience has done for me is provide the perfect outlet. This is one

more time I can do something for my country. I can't fight for it any more

but I can still go and win for it."

The Veterans Paralympic Performance Programme has been established for

this purpose, supporting veterans with full-time, year-round training by a

US Paralympics coach. James Stuck, who lost his right leg below the knee

when he drove over a remote-detonated bomb in Kirkuk in December 2005,

only two months and 23 days after arriving in Iraq, is based at the

University of Central Oklahoma, one of six Olympic and Paralympic Training

Centers based throughout the country that provide residence for elite

athletes. The 23-year-old former high school soccer player is a member of

the US sitting volleyball team and epitomises the kind of spirit shown by

Melissa Stockwell, the Iraq war's first female amputee, who has run the

New York marathon, completed a triathlon, taken up skiing and is training

to swim in the Paralympics. "I've been an amputee for just under a year

and, for me, the Paralympics is a great way to be competitive again," he

said.

"I retired from the infantry because they wouldn't let me try out for

special forces, which I'd have joined in a heartbeat, but I don't want to

be stuck around people who don't want to be there. There are people who

think it's one way, they get in there and it's totally different and they

hate it and just want to get out, and I don't want to be around those

people. They didn't allow me to join special forces but I'm going to be in

another elite field in the Paralympics. I have to keep doing something

because I'm too young to sit around. I was 21 when I got hit, 22 when I

retired and I'm 23 now. Yeah, I'm missing a body part but s*** happens. I

could be dead."

When Josh Olson was a child he dreamt of "how cool it would be to walk out

at the opening ceremony behind an American flag with the best athletes in

the United States and to go and compete for a medal". Years later he might

not have imagined that it would happen this way but the US Paralympic

Military Programme will give him every chance.

THE SUNDAY TIMES

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There's been a little bit of controversy over here as British sports bodies are starting to tap into this area as well. I'm surprised in a way it's taken this long to really think of it and do something about it.

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