JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii, January 21, 2014 – Wounded Marines pushed their limits to earn a different type of medal during the Wounded Warrior Pacific Invitational at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Jan. 5 to Jan. 11.
They were among more than 100 recovering service members from each branch of the armed services who faced off in team and individual sports. All the wounded warriors, including several from Marine Corps Base Hawaii and a visiting Marine from out of state, went home with participation medals.
John Stanz, of Jamestown N.Y., entered the invitational because it also serves as a Navy sports training camp. Stanz is recovering from a severe traumatic brain injury and other injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device that blasted his vehicle during an August 2009 deployment in Afghanistan. He competed in the invitational’s swim meet and in sit-down volleyball.
“This invitational gave me more evidence to myself that I’m the luckiest guy alive,” said Stanz, a former reconnaissance Marine with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. “It’s great to be able to participate in sports like this, see Hawaii and enjoy doing sports in different places of the world, enjoying the world as it is.”
At first, Stanz said he was reluctant to take up competitive swimming when he joined the SOCOM sports team for wounded warriors two years ago. Although he’s been healing from multiple fractures and working through a brain injury that initially required him to be induced into a medical coma, he felt anxious about competing. With encouragement from his teammates, he’s competed in the Warrior Games and now regularly races in paratriathlons. He said the recent Hawaii event was a great chance to keep in touch with Marines and others in the military community who shared a similar experience.
“Even if you took out the competition aspect of it, the thing I love the most and why I keep doing it every year, is the camaraderie,” he said.
He said it was great to meet Marines who were also recovering and stationed with Wounded Warrior Battalion West — Detachment Hawaii.
Both Brett Clark and Gustavo Norato joined the SOCOM team for sit-down volleyball.
Although Clark and Norato had limited practice in sit-down volleyball beforehand with the SOCOM players, both said the group gelled into a solid team that played well.
“In volleyball you definitely use your arms more and need to watch out for judging the distance of where the ball will go, so you can get under it without heavy pressure,” said Norato, of Collinwood, Tenn. and recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and back and shoulder injuries. “When you’re on your feet you can just run to where you need to go. But in sit-down volleyball you need to really watch the ball, reach and catch it or go under it really quick.”
Norato said it’s similar to the disorientation he first felt playing wheelchair basketball, competing in a familiar game without using his legs to run. He and Clark practice weekly on a wheelchair basketball team called Team Hawaii, which includes civilian disabled players and a former sailor. The group meets up every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the McCully Recreation Center in Honolulu.
Although neither were regular basketball players before their injuries, both said the sport is now one of their main avenues for fun physical fitness. Both enjoy the game’s mental and physical benefits.
“Wheelchair basketball has helped me socially talk to people again,” said Clark, of Atlanta, who is recovering from lower back injuries and PTSD. “And when I’m on the court, I’m not worried about anything else — it helps with the anxiety.”
Whether it was in team sports or individual sports, the participating Marines said they appreciated crowd support.
Chad O’Neal, a wounded warrior who is recovering from a torn patellar tendon in his knee, said it helped his speed. O’Neal said he was able to shave valuable seconds off his race time with cheering from friends and the crowd.
“People think it’s easy, just riding a bike, but it’s not,” said O’Neal of Lorena, Texas. “You build yourself up to it, by strengthening up the lower body. I try to always meet new challenges by going up Kansas Tower Hill. I ride recreationally and cycle by myself when I have a stressful day. It’s great to go around the base and relax.”
With the success from the invitational, the Marines said they are already working up to their next challenge: The Marine Corps Trials to compete for a spot in the 2014 Warrior Games.