Sochi Paralympic Games: Veterans That Keep Making Us Proud

Two weeks after the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics – from March 7-16 – comes a competition that might have even more significance to members of the military, veterans and patriots: the largest Paralympic Winter Games will be taking place in Sochi. Several disabled US veterans will be participating in the games, featuring seven disciplines of five sports, as recognized by the International Paralympic Committee.

The United States team plans to compete in each of the five sports:

  1. alpine skiing
  2. biathlon
  3. cross-country skiing
  4. sled hockey
  5. wheelchair curling

The Paralympics have been specially working with veterans for years. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) Paralympic Military & Veteran Programs provide post-rehabilitation support and mentoring to American servicemen and women who’ve sustained physical injuries such as traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation, visual impairment / blindness and stroke.

Heath Calhoun, who was injured while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, suffered the amputation of both his legs above the knee. Just five months after he was injured, the father of three attended a Winter Sports Clinic in Aspen, where he attempted snow skiing for the first time. He initially tried to learn how to snow board but found it very difficult to balance on his prosthetic legs. A friend encouraged him to try skiing using a mono-ski.

While Heath was participating in various athletic events, he still found he was limited by having to use a wheelchair for mobility. After leaving Walter Reed, he had several prosthetic legs made that would allow him to walk again but nothing worked, the process was very painful. Two and a half years post-injury, he had given up on using prosthetics for walking, thinking he would have to rely on a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Eventually, he saw that the prosthetics industry had developed shorter legs, enabling double amputees to be quite physically active, without use of crutches, canes or wheelchairs.

There are many other heroes who have paid a high price for our freedom, yet still set incredible examples with their athleticism. Having been a Cadet while at Texas A & M, Andy Soule was inspired to join the Army after 9/11. Soon after basic training, Soule deployed to Afghanistan where an improvised explosive device detonated next to his Humvee, resulting in a double leg amputation. Soule attended a cross country recruitment camp in Sun Valley, Idaho in 2005. Soon, he got hooked on the sport, moving to Sun Valley to live and train full-time. Soule has also competed in biathlons.

Dan Cnossen, a 2002 graduate of the Naval Academy, served as a Navy SEAL and was a Lieutenant Commander. During his third deployment, he sustained near life-ending injuries in Afghanistan in September, 2009. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with V (for valor) from the Secretary of the Navy. He specializes in cross-country.

U.S. Air Force veteran Sean Halsted was injured after falling 40 feet out of a helicopter, while on a fast rope during a search and rescue training exercise in 1998. A VA program led him to Nordic skiing in 2001. The married father of three also enjoys sled hockey, handcycling, swimming and downhill skiing.

Jeremy Wagner didn’t participate in sports as a kid, but he certainly made up for lost time quickly. In 2007, Wagner, a retired Army Reservist who served a tour of duty in Iraq, shattered his L1 vertebra in a motorcycle accident. Following his rehabilitation in the Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Center at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., he returned home to Hawaii and took up outrigger canoeing to aid in his rehabilitation efforts.

According to TeamUSA.org, a physical therapist from the SCI Center suggested that Wagner compete in other adaptive sports; he decided to participate in the VA’s 2010 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Denver. The U.S. Paralympics coaches encouraged Wagner to consider competing in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting.

First introduced as a sport at the Innsbruck 1988 Paralympic Winter Games, biathlon consists of a 2- or 2.5-kilometer course skied three or five times for a total race distance between 6 and 15 total kilometers. During the skiing portion of the race, the athletes must stop and shoot at two targets located at a distance of 10 meters.

Jen Yung Lee spent time as a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. Then, Lee had his left leg amputated above the knee when injured in an off-duty motorcycle accident in 2009. While undergoing rehabilitation in San Antonio, he was invited to try sled hockey. According to NBA.com, Lee says, “My job in the Army is to train full-time for the Paralympic team. I’m training and competing for my country.”

Rico Roman joined the Army upon graduating from high school in 2001. He served as a staff sergeant in the 2nd of the 14th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division. After three tours in Iraq and one in Kosovo, with less than a month to go on his last tour, Roman’s vehicle was struck be a roadside bomb. One year after returning from Iraq his left leg was amputated above the knee. Operation Comfort, a nonprofit organization that helps wounded warriors with rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center and the Center For The Intrepid, asked if he would like to try sled hockey.

Paul Schaus, a Marine Corporal, stepped on a landmine during his second deployment in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs above the knees, as well as a finger on his left hand. Schaus spent a month at Bethesda Naval Medical Center before finally moving to Walter Reed — where he remains at this time. While continuing his treatments and therapies at Walter Reed, Cpl Schaus plays Sled Hockey.

Josh Sweeney, a former Marine sergeant, stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. He ended up having both of his legs amputated. He began rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center. Having played ice hockey in high school, he was a natural at sled hockey.

 

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