Warrior Athletes

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Ardis The Register-Guard

With his red and yellow contact lenses, Sgt. Michael Kacer turns into a kind of alter-ego that his friends call Beast Mode. He wears them every time he races, putting him in the mindset he needs to do his best.

"For me it's like I unleash an inner animal," Kacer said. "The contacts get me in the mood to work out and compete. As soon as I'm done, I take them out."

Kacer - who lost his left arm in 2008 - is one of 34 wounded Army soldiers training at Hayward Field this week for the fourth annual Warrior Games in May, when the Army team will compete against Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations teams, as well as a British team.

This group of Army athletes has been training for track and field events since September, but there are other groups specializing in events such as cycling, archery, shooting, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball who have been training just as long. Of the 350 wounded, ill or injured soldiers who have applied so far, 125 remain. The rest have been assessed out by coaches or dropped out voluntarily. All are competing for one of 50 spots on the Army team.

Their Warrior Games fate rests in the hands of Master Sgt. Jarrett Jongema, who works as Adaptive Sports and Reconditioning Branch noncommissioned officer in charge at the Warrior Transition Command in Alexandria, Va. He oversees the applicants for each event at specialized training camps across the country throughout the year and ultimately chooses the team. Whether they make the team or not, all the soldiers are successful, Jongema said. He can tell by counting the smiles.

"They might be apprehensive or nervous at first," he said of the soldiers. "But looking at them training, you see their smiles. No one here will look upset, despite the pain."

Some of the soldiers competing in the games are currently serving, others are veterans; all have sustained some kind of injury, Jongema said. They may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or have orthopedic or spinal injuries. Or they may have lost limbs. All are determined to move past their injuries and prove to others and themselves what they can still do.

"It's not just about the Warrior Games," Jongema said, "it's a small piece in the recovery process."

Jongema himself was nearly killed by a suicide car bomber in September 2004 in Baghdad.

"Yes, the Warrior Games are great, and yes, we want to win, but everyone here wants to be part of something," he said. "I'd say they're a part of something great right now."

Kacer, 30, prefaced the story of how he lost his arm with a declaration of honesty.

"No B.S. - no one ever believes me when I say this - I lost my arm playing spades," he said with a smile. "We were sitting waiting to be picked up (from a mission), and a rocket landed 10 feet away. As I flipped my card over, it landed and I lost my arm."

It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, he said.

Kacer enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard at 17 in 1999 because he was "lazy and hanging out with the wrong crowd," he said, and battled addictions while serving in the Middle East.

His life got the jump-start it needed when he lost his arm while on tour in Afghanistan, Kacer said. He realized the road he was on before his injury wasn't going where he wanted to go, he said. And, seeing other soldiers overcome similar injuries, he realized the potential he still had, he said.

Now Kacer enjoys telling his story, reaching out to children in particular since adults tend to be stuck in their ways, he said. He also makes it his daily mission to try to improve other people's bad days.

"I never have a bad day," Kacer said. "When I start thinking I'm having a bad day, I think back to the day I got hit: 'That was a bad day. …