War on Terrorism

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Wounded Warriors Choose Ability Over Disability

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

April 2, 2009 - Marine Lance Cpl. Louis Stamatelos realized he had two choices after waking up two years ago with severe wounds in the intensive care unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Stamatelos admitted he "cracked and snapped" after learning that he had lost half of his right lung and the use of his right hand to a sniper's round in July 2006 during a deployment with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

A strapping 21-year-old who'd been at the top of his game as a competitive four-wheeler, he felt like his world had caved in on him. The adrenaline-charged activities he'd enjoyed seemed forever gone as he wondered if he'd ever be able to do so much as open a soft drink can or a refrigerator door.

That emotional low led to Stamatelos' day of reckoning. "I realized that I could either sit down and feel sorry for myself or make the best of my situation," he said.

Stamatelos, now 23, chose the latter.

"I'm up and kicking," he said, fresh off his snowboard after a run down Snowmass Mountain.

Stamatelos is among more than 400 disabled veterans here participating in the 23rd National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports clinic, more than one-third of them veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, like himself.

As they tackle 16 inches of fresh powder snow that's fallen during the last 48 hours alone, they're proving to themselves and others that disabilities don't have to be game-breakers.

"You have to come to terms with what you've been through, but basically it's your own positive attitude that gets you through," Stamatelos said. "If you want a better future, you have to work for it -- and don't expect anybody to do it for you."

Stamatelos' can-do attitude is ever-present at the winter sports clinic, where veterans of all ages are getting introduced to adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing, rock climbing, scuba diving, trapshooting, wheelchair fencing, sled hockey, snowmobiling and sled hockey, among other activities.

The six-day program, which wraps up tomorrow, is jointly sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans for veterans with disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries and orthopedic amputations to visual impairment and neurological conditions.

For many former Walter Reed Army Medical Center patients, the clinic is old-home week, an opportunity to catch up on just how much each continued progressing since leaving the hospital in Washington, D.C.

Among them is Roberto Cruz, an Army specialist wounded when a sniper's bullet went through his arm and hit his spinal cord while he was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, with the 3rd Infantry Division in August 2005.

"I was paralyzed, and they said I wouldn't walk again," said Cruz, now medically retired. He proved them wrong, and said he takes pleasure in greeting fellow participants at the clinic who he hasn't seen since giving up his wheelchair for good.

"It's really cool to see each other and show each other how well we're doing," he said.

Army Staff Sgt. Ramon Padillamunguia is among three current patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center attending this year's clinic.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team soldier took an enemy rocket-propelled grenade round at Firebase Phoenix near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan in July 2007. The blast severed his left arm just below the left elbow and inflicted a moderate traumatic brain injury.

Six surgeries later, 34-year-old Padillamunguia hopes to be released from Walter Reed soon to possibly return to active duty.

An avid athlete who has run the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, completed the 26.2-mile Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands, N.M., and actually improved his golf game since being wounded, he sees himself as an example to his fellow wounded warriors at Walter Reed.

The younger troops have the most difficulty coping with their disabilities, Padillamunguia said. "They want to be on top of the world, so the important thing is to keep putting pressure on them to get out there."

"I'm taking lots of pictures and video to take back and show them so I can say, 'I was in your shoes, but look where I am now.'"

Opportunities like those at the winter sports clinic abound for wounded warriors, as long as they're willing to take advantage of them, Padillamunguia said.

"They don't hand everything to you on your lap, but it's all out there," he said. "The key is to take advantage of these opportunities, network, find people who care and stay in touch with them.

"Because even in this economic crisis, people are still helping, still donating," he said. "People want to help the soldiers."

Padillamunguia said it's particularly eye-opening to see older veterans -- some in their 80s -- pushing themselves during the clinic. "It's just spectacular to see that," he said. "It's a real motivator that wows me as I go."

Stamatelos joined Padillamunguia in crediting older veterans he said have made a huge difference in his progress. "These guys have done a lot for me, and helped me open a lot of doors," he said. "They've really taken me under their wing and showed me the way ahead."

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