Wounded Warrior Games inspire physical activity

For Ashley Chavez, life as she knew it changed dramatically on Nov. 20, 2006. That was the day Chavez's vehicle hit an improvised explosive device -- or IED.

"All I remember is the flash of light from the IED," said Chavez, then a field radio operator deployed in Baghdad, Iraq.

The active duty Marine sergeant was knocked unconscious. Eventually diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, she suffered from dizziness, memory issues, blackouts and damage to the left side of her brain -- symptoms of which continue to this day.

In addition to the physical pain, she also copes with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The injury prevents Chavez from performing her highly technical military job as a radio operator. She had to be moved to the Wounded Warrior Battalion, where she is a patient recovering from her injuries and working on regaining her strength.

"In the year after my injury I was so afraid of admitting anything was wrong and seeking the medical attention that I needed," Chavez said. "Having an 'inside' injury is sometimes the most difficult to accept. I allowed depression to take over."

There were days Chavez didn't know if she would ever return to the active lifestyle which she had become so to accustomed to prior to her injury. All that changed on Feb. 23, 2011, when she crossed the finish of the 100-meter dash and came in third place at the Warrior Game trials for the Marines at Camp Pendleton in California.

What happens when they leave the Warrior Games is most important. Physical activity increases self-esteem, reduces depression and lowers secondary medical conditions. It's the core of why we're doing this event.
Charlie Huebner, the chief of Paralympics for the USOC

"My friend Bobbi and I embraced each other and cried," she said. "It was my first time running in three years."

That race marked a starting point to get Chavez back into physical activity.

The trials were just a warm up before she heads to the Warrior Games, which will be held May 16-21 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Games are a joint effort between the USO and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and aim to provide an opportunity for active duty or retired military personnel, who have been wounded in combat, to participate in seven different sporting events including wheelchair basketball, swimming, cycling, archery, shooting, sitting volleyball and track and field. Athletes are drawn proportionately from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Army.

The inaugural Games, in May of 2010, saw 187 service men and women compete; 200 are expected this year.

The impact the Games have on their participants spans beyond that week in Colorado. Over the past two years, physical activity has increased by 23 percent at Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Battalions and other Wounded Warrior programs across the country. The biggest spike came after the close of last year's Games, according Charlie Huebner, the chief of Paralympics for the USOC.

"What happens when they leave the Warrior Games is most important," Huebner said. "Physical activity increases self-esteem, reduces depression and lowers secondary medical conditions. It's the core of why we're doing this event."

Sergeant Stacy Pearsall, Air Force retired, learned firsthand that staying active can be just as beneficial to the soul as it is to the body.

"The minute I left the games last year, I never stopped training for this year's Games," said Pearsall. Last year, she ran the mile, shot the rifle and participated in sitting volleyball. This year, she'll be running the half-mile, shooting rifle, participating in sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

She said the Warrior Games gave her a goal to work toward.

"You feel like rehab is never ending," said Pearsall, who was injured the first time in 2004, when an IED blew up outside of her Humvee near the Baghdad International Airport. She suffered traumatic brain and neck injuries, including hearing loss in her right ear. Then, in 2007, while serving another tour in Iraq, she suffered further injuries to her neck in the midst of another IED explosion, as well as during an ambush with a striker unit where she hit her head at the base of her skull.

Besides the physical benefits that participants take away from the Warrior Games, the event is also an opportunity for the participants to engage in some much-needed camaraderie. Pearsall said she'd been feeling alienated after her injury, but the Warrior Games gave her back that sense of being part of a team -- something she was so accustomed to in the military.

Pearsall recounts an emotional moment from last year's games when a Marine, who was blind and a double amputee, got into the pool to take part in the swimming event.

"This man swam the length of the pool -- down and back -- faster time than I would've. The whole stadium was on its feet. It gave everyone a renewed sense of encouragement," Pearsall said.

With one Warrior Games under her belt and another about to take place, Pearsall's perspective on her journey -- and others' -- from wounded vet to competitive athlete is one of great pride.

"The Games are really important to help warriors understand that just because they have a disability doesn't mean they don't have abilities," Pearsall said.

For more information on the Warrior Games, visit the website.