Last month, the sixth annual Warrior Games took place at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., a departure from its previous host city, Colorado Springs. While past games have been organized in partnership between the Department of Defense and U.S. Paralympics, the DOD took the lead in organizing this year's event and will continue to do so, with different branches of the military hosting each year. As noted by a department spokesperson, the change was part of the DOD's effort "to better align the event with the Games' core mission of playing a vital role in recovery for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans."
The athletes who participate in the Warrior Games represent only a small fraction of those involved in the military's adaptive sports programs, and the Games represent just one way athletics has become a part of the wounded warrior rehabilitation process. "Back in about 2011, we came across a lot of research indicating the benefits of sport on the recovery of not just the general population but especially those who have sustained any type of injury," says Jeffrey Lerner, director of education, employment and reconditioning programs for the DOD Office of Warrior Care Policy. Further research led to the launch of the Military Adaptive Sports Program in 2011, which provides recovering service members opportunities to participate in athletic and recreational activities, camps and clinics. To date, more than 163,000 participants have been served.
"We do any adaptive sports that you'd find a regular sport for — wheelchair basketball, scuba diving, triathlons, sled hockey, downhill skiing," says Steve Springer, a nursing care coordinator working with wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
A SPORTS-MEDICINE APPROACH
MASP actually falls under the DOD's recovery coordination program and is part of the soldier rehabilitation process. In fact, much of the rehabilitation process at WRNMMC utilizes concepts borrowed from athletics as part of patients' recovery program. "We in general use a sports-medicine rehabilitation model," Springer says, noting that many of the military members at the center are only in their mid-20s. "While a lot of rehabilitation centers want to get someone up and walking, our focus is on returning to maximum function — running, swimming, active military service. They have another 50 or 60 years of life ahead, and we want to get them to maximum health for that time."
Rehabilitation includes areas such as strength training, core fitness, even TRX classes, depending on where an individual is in the recovery process. "A lot of it is based off of individual assessment," says James Rodriguez, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the DOD Office of Warrior Care Policy. "Those working with them figure out the best type of program — sports or other therapy — that will best suit the individual as he or she recovers."
From there, rehabilitation programming progresses to involvement in sports and other recreational activities, everything from yoga to CrossFit, even things as simple as gardening. "We offer archery, air rifle, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis," Lerner says. "We've also had significant interest in rugby and lacrosse."
Before becoming involved in any athletic activity, individuals must first be cleared medically. "Safety is always a primary concern," Springer says. "A lot of times we have to delay someone's participation because they're ready to go, but medically they're not cleared. We don't hold them back, but we make sure we don't beat them up too bad."
STRATEGIES & ALLIANCES
Organizing weeklong ski trips, wheelchair basketball leagues, lacrosse clinics and a host of other activities for soldiers with disabilities might seem a bit daunting. "We run three or four events daily and sometimes two or three weekly on the national level," Springer says. "Yoga, jujitsu, horseback riding, downhill skiing — this time of year we're starting our water events. We held a surf camp a couple of weeks ago."
"The key to success for us has been partnerships," Rodriguez says. At many installations, MASP site coordinators have leveraged established partnerships of other base programs to organize activities, and to secure facilities and coaches. Outside organizations have provided a helping hand, as well.
"We collaborate with a significant number of nonprofit sporting groups," says Springer, adding there's no shortage of organizations looking to organize and sponsor an event. "If one drops out, there's two or three waiting to fill in."
There are challenges associated with organizing any event, Springer says — ADA-compliant lodging, access to the venue, transportation, arranging staff to provide healthcare services. "Most of the folks that offer these events have done them before or know what is required to take care of our wounded warriors," he says. "Most of our partners come in loaded with that information and do a really good job preparing the event to handle all the needs."
Anyone who has participated in organized athletics understands that the benefits of sports extend beyond physical fitness. Being part of a team can boost confidence and help with much-needed emotional and social development. "With our amputee population, their body image changes," Springer says. "Their self-esteem and body image are disrupted such that they have no faith in themselves."
Participation in sports and other recreational activities becomes as much about regaining confidence as it is about rebuilding physical strength. "One of the things we know is that when somebody participates in a sport and gets that confidence back in their personal lives, it allows them to participate in other activities," says Rodriguez.
Their program experience can also help those adjusting to life with a permanent injury to develop new perspectives on their own limitations, says Rodriguez. "A lot of men and women with injuries are doing things that they've not been able to do before. We've got athletes running marathons, doing triathlons, swimming — things they've never done when they were able-bodied. They're propelled to do bigger and better things."
Preparing soldiers to face whatever life has in store for them after they have completed rehabilitation is a key aspect of MASP. "Not all service members transition out of the military," Rodriguez says. "Many remain within the military, reintegrating back into their units and redeploying. They're learning to utilize their adaption to the best of their ability."
For those who do retire from service, the time spent participating in MASP activities can make for a much smoother transition. "For some, the physical scarring is very visible and is an attention-getter to the civilian population," Springer says. "We want our folks to reintegrate successfully, and we nudge them in that direction though organized events."
"We want anyone who transitions out of the military to live a long, healthy lifestyle," Rodriguez adds. "The same for our injured. We know that if they get back into physical activity, it's more likely that they will have that long, healthy lifestyle."
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "HEALTHY COMPETITION"