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Around The Fleet

Archery Coach Helps Fellow Wounded Warriors Adapt to 'New Normal'

How adaptive sports promote healing for a coach and his athletes

While deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic, Army Staff Sgt. Jessie White had no way of knowing the blast from an improvised-explosive device would change his life forever.

In an instant, he suffered not only a traumatic brain injury, but also two compressed disks in his neck that required surgery, and his right ankle was so heavily damaged it would need to be rebuilt four times. Everything he had known for the last 18 years came to a screeching halt.

"I spent 18 years in the Army [as a cavalry] scout," he said. "I was at the point where they told me I had to retire. I wasn't ready to retire.

"It's hard," White added. "It is truly hard. It was hard for me when the Army came in and said, 'Hey, sorry, you can't be in the Army anymore.' That's tough."

After 19 surgeries and more than three years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, White admitted he was unsure what to do next. He had been a Soldier since the age of 18, and when people started asking if he had thought about a new direction in life, he didn't have a definitive answer. But representatives from the Army approached him with an interesting proposal that helped him find a way forward.

"In 2010, the Army just came to me and said, "Hey, don't you bowhunt?'" White said. "I said, 'Yeah I've bowhunted my entire life. I grew up in Arkansas.' And they were like, 'Okay, well, you're on the Army's archery team.'"

White hadn't known the Army had an archery team, nor that competing would be possible with his injuries. It helped him heal physically and provided an outlet that took away the uncertainty he had about life outside the military. By reconnecting with what he described as a "warrior mindset," he was able to focus on being part of a team again, and as a result, he achieved success at the Department of Defense Warrior Games.

"I actually went and did the first Warrior Games in Colorado at the Olympic Training Center, and I used my hunting bow," he said.

I won the silver medal the first year, so I decided if I'm going to do this, I'm going to learn everything I can about it. I hired myself a coach, competed three more years, enjoyed it so much, and I learned so much that I was able to actually go take my coaching certifications." -Jessie White

After competing for four years, White achieved a level of mastery in his sport that allowed him to become the coach of not only the Army's archery team, but also the Navy's. This isn't an issue, he said, because the competition is more about camaraderie than rivalry.

In this role, he believes he has discovered his calling in life. In fact, White is overseeing all of the archery events at this year's games. He also coached the U.S. team for the international Invictus Games.

"I tell people I don't know where I would be - I really don't - if I wasn't coaching," he said. "These guys are like family, and then all of a sudden you lose that. So what the Warrior Games and all the adaptive sports [do, is give] that back to them."
Three photo collage of Jessie White: competing in Warrior Games; coaching; while on active duty.

Giving back is now White's mission. Just like adaptive sports helped him to heal physically and emotionally, now he is helping other wounded warriors conquer adversity. Their new mission, he tells them, is all about overcoming obstacles and finding strength through unity - much in the same way he once did.

"My coach that I got originally was a great influence on me and on my rehab, as well," White said. "He pushed me to be what I am today. I can take what he did for me as a coach and give back to these guys as a coach. I can show them that there is something to do after the military. Even though you've got these injuries, you can still do anything you want to do."

White is proof of that. He is committed to helping service members transition to what he described as their "new normal," and as part of that, he encourages all wounded warriors to simply try adaptive sports. He knows there is often skepticism, especially with the extent of some injuries or a lack of sports knowledge, but he believes becoming part of a team again and rediscovering esprit de corps is worth it.

"Try it," White said. "I rode a hand cycle for the Warrior Games for four years. I didn't even know what a hand cycle was, but I came to an [introductory] camp, I tried it and it was actually really fun to do. So if somebody's in that position, if they don't know whether they want to do the adaptive sports, or if they don't know if they want to do the Warrior Games, just come to a camp and try it. You never know until you try."

Babe Ruth once said, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game." On a similar note, if White had let the apprehension he once felt when considering adaptive sports stop him, he would have missed out on the most rewarding part of his post-military life. He knows it's the same for others as well. For example, one of White's friends who didn't want anything to do with adaptive sports is now a member of the U.S. Paralympic archery team and competed in Rio de Janeiro last year.

"You have doctors every day [telling] you, 'You're never going to walk again.' 'You can't do this.' Or, 'You can't do that,'" White said. "It eventually gets to you and you're like, 'OK, I can't do that.' But then you see [the athletes] when they first start and come to their first introductory camp, then you see them six months later ... [and] it completely changes your outlook on life."