~ Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press Service
The ceremony began much as any typical military procession does – with troops called to formation.
“I need a four-man front. Give me a four-man front,” yelled a platoon leader.
The troops joked and shifted, jostling about and adjusting spacing.
“Everybody in this row right here, shift back one,” the leader called out.
The commands for uniformity kept coming, customary of getting a platoon ready to look its best.
“If you’ve got a water bottle, get rid of it!”
“Zippers should be zipped up to the writing on the jackets.”
But for all of the commands sounded, one stood out and marked the uniqueness of both the occasion and the troops who made up the ranks.
“If you’re in a wheelchair, move to the front.”
About 200 servicemembers marched down the center of the U.S. Olympic Training Center here yesterday before an enthusiastic crowd of local people, families and volunteers at the opening ceremony of the inaugural Warrior Games.
Hundreds of spectators waved flags, took pictures and cheered and clapped as the formation of troops passed by basking in what has become the gold standard of community support this new generation of veterans enjoys. Hailed as hometown heroes well beyond their capability to take up arms on the battlefield, they are a group of war-wounded veterans who redefine the term “standing on your own two feet.”
The ceremonial torch was delivered by a double-leg amputee who had plans to parachute in, an entrance that high winds prevented. In fact, the five troops selected to represent their services carrying the torch along the Olympic path had barely two pairs of real legs among them.
Army Sgt. Robert Price took the torch for the first few steps. His right leg was claimed by a bomb in Iraq in 2007. Price has eyes on making the 2012 U.S. Paralympic team, and he describes himself as a “prior” wounded warrior. He now spends his time in the Army helping others who are just beginning their recovery.
Price joked that he was about as nervous carrying the torch as he was on combat missions in Iraq.
“It’s all eyes on you,” he said, and then he laughed.
It is not the physical limitations of these troops that define the games — the omission of the word “wounded” in the title is not unintentional. It is the spirit of these warriors that leaders hope to capture. It is the fight that is left that drives them to compete. It is their dreams that keep them alive.
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer James Wilson was grateful for the dark Ray-Ban sunglasses he wore as he traveled down the path carrying the torch. The salty, 32-year veteran sailor said he was glad no one could see the tears streaming down his face.
Wilson has always been athletic, and like most children, he once dreamed of a sports career on the playing field. But real life led to a career in the Navy. He stayed connected by coaching sports and staying in shape until a 40-foot-fall from a ship in 2003 broke his neck and back, and eventually claimed his right leg.
“I was speechless,” Wilson said of the moment he was asked to lead his team at the games. “That was a dream of mine since I was a child. I thought I’d never realize it.” This week, Wilson will stand against all odds on a sports field wearing a U.S. uniform and competing against troops half his age.
“I’m going to hold out just fine. It’s these guys I’m worried about,” he joked.
Jokes are as abundant here as prosthetic limbs.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who was burned over 80 percent of his body by a bomb blast in Afghanistan, is notorious for joking about his very visible injuries.
“I didn’t want to get burned,” he deadpanned when asked what he was thinking as he carried the torch for the Air Force.
Del Toro, or “DT” as he is called, will compete in a host of events, taking on all comers.
“I want to see how good I can do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I am first, second, third or last, as long as I finish.”
Del Toro noted that he and the other competitors here are part inspired, part inspiration. There is an odd, harsh reality among this group. A troop struggling with one amputation is encouraged by someone who has overcome the challenges of a double amputation. In turn, they are inspired by a triple amputee.
It is difficult to feel sorry for yourself in this crowd — not because someone always has it worse, but because people who had been through worse have gone on to realize dreams they never thought possible.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Chuck Sketch was told a year ago that he had about six months to live. His friends told him to find a nursing home where he could live out his last days. Sketch had joined the Marines 1991. He found out he had a brain tumor in 1993. In 1997, he lost his sight. In 1998, both of his legs were amputated because of blood clots.
“I thought my life was over. I didn’t think I would be able to do anything again,” Sketch said. But with the help of a determined father and some new chemotherapy introduced to the medical field, Sketch is still alive. And in the past year, he has skied, surfed and swum his way across the country participating in nearly every disabled veteran, Paralympic-sponsored, get-off-your-butt-and-do-it program he can sign up for.
“I never thought I would be here. Not in a million years,” he said.
Sketch is even working on his master’s degree at night school. His comrades chose the former Marine to carry the torch on their behalf.
“They like my sense of humor, and I have the biggest mouth,” he joked.
Sketch said troops here have to work much harder than able-bodied athletes to be where they are. A regular athlete starts training at Square One, he said. These troops, he noted, start at Square “Minus 500.”
“You’ve got to do so much just to get to the point where you can start training,” he said.
But don’t mistake Sketch’s remarks as a plea for sympathy. You won’t find any of that here. Sketch trained intensely, and now can perform the 1,500-meter freestyle swim faster than many of his two-legged counterparts.
When asked how he likely will fare this week, Sketch’s solemn vow is characteristic of the never-say-uncle, intensely competitive nature of all the troops here. Bonded by the brotherhood of war, brought together by the shared pain of fighting for their very lives, only one thing separates them: the color of their uniforms.
“I’m going to kick the Army’s butt,” Sketch said.
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