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Health and Fitness

I Am Unconquered

Invictus Games 2014

Every story is important, but sometimes, one can count themselves lucky to get assigned a story that resonates so intensely that it can change your outlook on life. In July I was chosen to be part of a team covering the Invictus Games taking place in London, England from Sept. 10 to 14.

I have covered events with our wounded service members in the past, but nothing could compare to the experience of seeing people who society would label as disabled proudly representing their country with their heads held high.

First, let me provide you with a little background information on the games themselves. The Invictus Games were created by British Prince Harry after he witnessed last year's Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo. He took the premise of a sports competition for wounded, injured and ill service members and expanded on it. With the help of the royal family and corporate sponsors Invictus Games was created as an international competition akin to the Olympics. Each participating nation would field a team composed of members of each branch of their armed forces. Each team competed for medals in events ranging from archery to cycling in many of the venues that were used for the 2012 Olympic Games.

I knew that there would be compelling stories of people overcoming their injuries or illnesses. What I did not expect was how open these athletes were to telling their stories, and frankly, how candid they were. I would like to share two stories that stick out in my mind with you.

One of the first athletes that I met while covering training before the actual start of the Invictus Games was one that I had recognized from covering the Warrior Games last year. When I first met Javier Rodriguez Santiago, he was confined to a wheelchair after a devastating motorcycle accident. He was competing at the Warrior Games in hand cycling and was gracious enough to share his story with me. One of the things that we had discussed at the Warrior games was his prognosis going forward. He was debating whether or not he should have his left leg amputated so that he could be ambulatory again. One of Santiago's major goals was to remain on active duty as a Yeoman.

Navy Photo



When I saw Santiago at Invictus Games he was again in a wheelchair, but this time it was his choice, not a necessity. He had elected to have his left leg amputated above the knee to allow him to use a prosthetic leg and regain his mobility and independence. The first thing that I asked him was how he was doing after the amputation. His response; it was the best decision that I could have made. He was able to remain on active duty and to cap it off, the week after his amputation he was selected as a Chief Petty Officer. You can read more about his story, in his own words at the link below.

http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/ftrStory.asp?id=78514

Covering an event like Invictus Games, I fully expected to hear stories like Santiago's. What I did not expect is a story such as Marine Staff Sargent Jacob Rich. The first time that I met Rich was at the Lee Valley Athletics Centre for the track and field competition. I saw a member of the USA Team in a wheelchair allowing a little boy to ride on his lap and had to run over to take a photograph of that moment. I didn't know it at the time, but that photo illustrates one of the most inspirational stories of the entire games.

Navy Photo



Rich was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cord cancer in 2011. This condition eventually led him to lose the use of his lower limbs. He was determined to fight through his illness and remain an active and contributing member of his unit. He underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment to try to stop the spread of the cancer. As his condition and treatment progressed he transferred from his unit to the Wounded Warrior Battalion. Earlier this year, Rich found out that his cancer had spread from his spine to his brain. At this point, his doctors gave him six months to live.

Back to the photo; the child riding on Rich's lap is his son. Rich is the father to three children and they are the reason that he is willing to continue his fight. Although he knows that he will eventually lose his life to his cancer, he is concerned about setting an example of perseverance for his children to emulate. His willingness to confront his illness head-on and the attitude that he carries has led him to exceed his doctor's grim predictions by more than three months. Not only is he surviving, but he is living. While he may not be the fastest person on the track, the very fact that he is there at all is a testament to the human spirit. More of Rich's story is available below.

http://www.marines.mil/News/NewsDisplay/tabid/3258/Article/503013/marine-finds-resilience-perseverance-through-competition.aspx


One common theme that runs through both of these stories, and frankly, most of the stories of those who I met at the games was that adaptive athletics made their lives better. For Santiago, adaptive athletics gave him insight into what his life could be after his accident, for Rich, they gave him a reason to continue to fight for life. For others, adaptive athletics helped pull them out of the dark places that people with permanent disability can find themselves. These resources are out there for all branches of the military. You do not have to be a wounded service member to participate or compete. The majority of the athletes that compete in the Invictus Games and Warrior Games are not combat wounded, they are people who ill fortune, or illness have changed the course of their lives.

For me, these games show the true depth of the human spirit and how much individuals can overcome. For these athletes, when the starting gun fires or their team is competing, everything becomes normal again, they are not wounded or ill, they are competitors and whole. I think that USA Team competitor Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (ret.) Redmond Ramos said it best, "there are zero victims here, and no one is looking for pity... it's not a bunch of disabled people that happen to be competing, we are people having a competition that happen to be disabled."

For more information about Navy Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor please visit:
http://safeharbor.navylive.dodlive.mil/