Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Triumph Over

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Triumph Over

Article excerpt

Injured war veterans overcome insurmountable odds by using recreation to stay fit and on top of their game.

Born in Pittsburgh, James Stuck was a natural athlete and a soccer player. He enlisted in the military after a brief stint at LaRoche College, training at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Kennedy, Ken., before being deployed to Iraq in September 2005.

Stuck returned to the United States facing some life-changing challenges. Three months into his deployment, his convoy had been hit by a roadside bomb in Kirkuk, Iraq. His lower leg was crushed in the blast and had to be amputated. He spent most of the next year in rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Stuck says he was introduced to adaptive sports through a Paralympic Military Summit, an opportunity for injured war veterans to learn about and try a variety of activities in the hopes to encourage daily physical activity. "The whole idea of a military summit is to get wounded soldiers and disabled vets confident in different sports," Stuck says.

He began playing sitting volleyball at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military Sports Camp in 2006. Stuck took quickly to the sport, aided by his long reach, and made the U.S. Paralympics Men's Sitting Volleyball National Team that same year. Although he is back in college-now at the University of Central Oklahomahe is still training with team members, recently returning with a silver medal from the Parapan Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

He lights up when he talks about participating in sports after his injury. "It's a huge, huge influence. It makes you more confident being out in public and seeing other amputees out and about doing the same thing." Stuck credits the sport with boosting his confidence, but he also says it's about more than just participating in the games. "The sports are huge, but what goes along with it are the bonds that you make with people."

The mental and physical benefits of organized sports and recreation play a vital role in getting veterans readjusted and thriving back at home. Carlos Leon is a former Marine and Paralympic athlete, and recently set a new, unofficial world record in the discus at the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team Trials. He says the importance of simply having something to do after an injury cannot be underestimated. "It gives you something to strive for. You can only be good if you try."

The sense of purpose that comes from participating in sports can be vital to veterans dealing with serious injuries. Partaking in sports and recreation is a simple yet indispensable outlet to give injured veterans a way to return to activities they participated in before they were injured. In addition, recreation can give them a sense of belonging they might have lost postinjury. Leon credits his participation in sports with giving him a positive attitude and allowing him to avoid the depression that people often face after suffering a life-changing injury.

Leon says an additional advantage is the fitness that his sport provides. "I can't remember the last time I was sick," says Leon. "I've never been healthier in my life." The benefits of exercise can be garnered at any level of participation and is not just seen in veterans who become elite athletes.

Recreation is also important for veterans returning from combat duty-injured or not-because they often need to adjust to returning home after a stressful situation. Returning war veterans are particularly susceptible to complications from war experiences and the potential for unhealthy inactivity. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can result in depression and can lead to a dangerously sedentary lifestyle.

Recreation provides an outlet for stress, helping to balance mental and physical health. Physically injured soldiers are dealing with many serious issues, and sports can be a channel to refocus their energy on a positive activity in which they receive positive reinforcement for their participation. …

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