By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 16, 2009 - When Army Staff Sgt. John Bennett got shot by a sniper in Iraq in February 2005, his dreams of competition crumbled along with three vertebrae. Looking back over that day in Hawijah, Iraq, the Montana Army National Guardsman feared he'd lost far more than a kidney, his spleen, colon, half of his pancreas and use of his legs.
"I was really worried about how my injuries would affect my life," he said.
Three years ago, just 11 months after leaving the hospital, Bennett put those concerns to rest when he attended his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Anchorage, Alaska. By the time the competition had finished, he'd earned two gold medals, in basketball and the 100-meter wheelchair race, as well as a bronze in bowling.
"I was really ecstatic that I could still get out there and compete," he said. "It gave me a chance to prove to myself that I could still do it."
Now back at the 29th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Spokane, Wash., Bennett is helping to show other disabled veterans that they can do it, too.
He's among more than 500 disabled veterans, about half of them wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. "A ton of them are novices," he said, meaning first-timers to the wheelchair games participating in their first sporting event since becoming disabled.
The event is the world's largest annual wheelchair sports competition, bringing together veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations or other mobility or neurological conditions to compete in 17 different events.
They've fanned out to venues across the city to compete in track, swimming, field, basketball, weightlifting, softball, quad rugby, air guns, nine-ball, bowling, table tennis, archery, hand cycling, trapshooting, a motorized rally, power soccer and wheelchair slalom, a timed obstacle course. Others are participating in a golf clinic.
"It's fabulous to see this many disabled veterans out here competing," Bennett said. "It's just incredible to see the number of people who come out and do this."
Another Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran participating for the second time is Steve McGuire, who was medically retired as a Navy petty officer second class after a motorcycle accident landed him in a wheelchair.
McGuire was just back from a deployment to the Gulf aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt when the July 2006 accident left him with multiple fractures to his spine and ribs. He spent 10 days in the hospital, then more than five months in rehabilitation.
As he was recovering, McGuire said he realized his future rested largely in his own hands. "I couldn't afford to not get moving and get my life moving," he said.
So he got into adaptive competition, joining the "East Coast Cripplers," Virginia's only wheelchair rugby team.
"It gave me confidence, knowing that even though I was disabled, I was still able," he said.
Last summer, McGuire attended his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb. He netted a gold medal in basketball and two silvers: in the novice category for archery and for coaching the second-place rugby team.
Like Bennett, he's back for more this year in Spokane. He's part of a rugby team slated to compete in the gold-medal match today, and he's got bowling and archery competitions in the days ahead.
But equally exciting, he said, is the opportunity to bond with other disabled veterans, particularly those just learning to live with their disabilities. A peer counselor at his home Veterans Affairs clinic, McGuire uses himself as an example as he helps them look beyond perceived limitations.
"I definitely feel that I have gained more than I have lost," he said of his own disability. "I've gained perspective in life and learned to appreciate things I took for granted. I'm more motivated. Instead of just doing what I had to do, I'm striving to go beyond that."
McGuire praised the National Veterans Wheelchair Games as the perfect experience to help veterans help each other build self-confidence as they rehabilitate together. "It's a huge experience," he said.
Among the mentors at this year's games is Russell Braun, a 70-year-old Air Force veteran participating in his eighth wheelchair games.
"The games give the newly injured veterans the knowledge that they can do more than sit around the house," Braun said. "It gives them self confidence and incentive, and really opens up their lives a lot more."
As VA Secretary Eric Shinseki noted during the games' opening day July 13, the event enriches onlookers, too. "These games are not only great for the athletes, they're even better for us as spectators," he said as he helped tip off a demonstration basketball match that got the games under way.
Bennett, who coaches girls' basketball and regularly cheers on his own family during their athletic events, said it was a treat to be in center court rather than on the sidelines.
"It's great for them to be able to see dad compete and get out there and do something to test his skills against everyone else," he said.
The games will continue through July 18, followed by an awards ceremony.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, with financial assistance from corporate, civic and veterans service organizations.
In addition to the wheelchair games, the VA co-sponsors three other national rehabilitative events: the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, the National Veterans Golden Age Games and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
Last fall, the VA hosted a new summer sports clinic pilot program that introduces water and adventure sports such as sailing, surfing, kayaking, cycling, and track-and-field events to recently injured veterans.
Next year's National Veterans Wheelchair Games will be held in Denver in early July.