Wheelchair Vets Seek Ultimate Dignity

By CDR Byron D. Varner U.S. Navy (RET)

Downtown Seattle was the host city for almost 600 disabled veterans and their families in early July. They came from 44 states, Puerto Rico and Great Britain to compete in National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Sponsored by the VA and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, it is a unique sporting event that gives its participants an opportunity to regain self-esteem through athletic accomplishments they once considered impossible. As one contestant described it, “You're a winner here by just showing up!”

There are some women contestants, but the majority are male, and every branch of the service is represented. Those with combat experience include service in WWII and every U.S. conflict since that time.

About 44% are paraplegics (lost use of two limbs) and 32% are quadriplegics (lost use of all limbs). Others are amputees, have Multiple Sclerosis, or have other brain injuries or disease. All have permanent neuromuscular-skeletal disability.

Despite these cold statistics, the fire in their belly to compete takes on Olympic proportions in their hearts and minds, however, and in many respects their participation in these events is more heroic than the physically whole athlete in the Olympics — considering what these veterans have to overcome.

While air guns, archery, billiards, bowling, slalom (an obstacle course), swimming, table tennis, track and weightlifting are non-contact sports, others such as basketball, quad rugby and road races are fiercely competitive and can get quite physical. These guys may be in wheelchairs, but they give no quarter in the heat of battle, crashing into each other in an all-out effort to win.

Track events include 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, and 5000-meter races. Field events include club throw, shot put, discus and javelin. Exhibition events include tennis, softball, sailing and sea kayaking. In each event, participants compete against those with similar athletic ability, competitive experience or age, and gender.

There is a touching story in every unsung hero competing in these games, and I wish I could have met all of them. The following vignettes of those I did interview offers a brief insight into some of their struggles to accept the reality of their disabilities:

ROBERT (PAT) SAPP was in Vietnam with a Marine Corps reconnaissance group in 1970. During a jump, enemy fire blew out his parachute and he fell about 300 feet to permanent injury.

He spent two years in Bethesda Navy Hospital, scared, angry and hopeless. After returning home, he got into alcohol and drugs, cultivating no friendships of any kind.

However, he got a lot of encouragement to hang in there and make the best of a bad situation, from a quadriplegic patient, Oliver Andrian, of Ohio, who was in much worse shape than he. Then one day Pat saw a veteran with no arms or legs eating food from a plate like an animal, and he suddenly realized how much better-off he was than that poor guy, and vowed never to give up hope.

“When you learn to accept your disability, you begin to look at everything as a challenge instead of an impossibility,” Pat told me. “You have to overcome prejudice and barriers of every kind,” he added, saying, “You might knock us down but you can't take our spirit!”

This is his 12th year to compete in the Games, and although his basketball team didn't place high, Pat won four individual gold medals — one for the slalom, and three for swimming the 50-yard butterfly, 100-yard breast stroke and 100-yard freestyle. He works out year-round to keep physically and mentally fit in Bend, Ore., where he teaches the disabled, including young children, how to ski. This gives him both pleasure and a feeling of accomplishment.

Pat taught his paraplegic fiancee, Tricia Prince, how to ski. They met during previous wheelchair games, and plan to marry soon..

TRICIA PRICE, of Rockwall, TX, is one of four sibling Army “brats” who joined that service when they became of age. She spent two years in Germany during active service, but was injured after returning to civilian life several years later.

Thrown from a horse on a Texas ranch in 1992, she was taken to the VA Hospital in Dallas for treatment and rehabilitation.

Tricia spent a year or more in denial before she turned her life around. That instance came while watching a TV news story of a man, wife and three children who lost all their possessions in a house fire, barely escaping with their lives.

The man was on his knees giving thanks to God. His adoring wife and children turned toward him with obvious love and admiration as he answered reporters queries about everything they had lost. “I have lost nothing,” he replied. “Those are only material things. My family was saved and that's all that matters to me.”

Since then, she has volunteered many hours as a health care advocate at the Dallas VA, helping other disabled persons, and has participated in various events at these games. This year, she won two gold medals, one bowling and the other weightlifting. At the Creative Arts competition in Pennsylvania last year, she received a gold medal for choreographing wheelchair jitterbug dancing.

Following the crippling accident, Tricia's husband divorced her, leaving three small sons, now ages 10, 12, and 19. I asked her what they thought about the upcoming marriage. In her perky, upbeat manner, she answered, “They love him! In fact, the youngest one thinks Pat is the answer to his prayers and that it is merely a stroke of luck that I happen to love Pat too! He will be a wonderful, understanding and helpful father who will teach them good things, morally and physically, as well as be a much-needed friend and guiding hand.”

NEIL COOPER, age 27, married, with two small children, is one of 11 participants from Great Britain. He was injured in 1989 playing rugby while on active duty. He spent two years in the hospital and was released from the Army in 1993, with a small pension. His interest in sports helped him accept his disability.

“We have nothing comparable to the VA or PVA in our country,” Neil said. “They are marvelous organizations, and the atmosphere at these games and the friendliness and cooperation of the Americans here is a lovely thing to behold. I'm glad to be a part of it.” He competed in bowling, discus throw, javelin throw and shot-put events, winning a bronze medal in shot-put and finished high in the others.

EDWARD F. KEATING, 29, of Mentor, OH, was in training at Camp Pendleton, CA, 1988, when another Marine accidentally shot him in the head. Keating was in a coma for 21 days, “awaking as a vegetable” (as he put it) in San Diego's Balboa Naval Hospital.

His trauma, depression and recovery was the subject of a made-for-TV movie, Moments of Truth: The Eddie Keating Story, starring Ken Howard as his father, Blair Brown as his mother, and Cameron Bancroft as Eddie.

From complete immobility, he has regained the use of his upper body and, today with the help of functional electrical stimulation, his leg muscles respond enough to practice walking. Although still almost totally dependent on a wheelchair. He vows that, “Someday I will walk.”

Like his father, he chose the Marine Corps as his service and is still very much a Marine in his spit and polish attitude and great self discipline.

He has competed in the 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter races and 5K road event during the past seven Games, winning medals each time. “1995 was my best year, with four gold and one silver,” he said.

When this year's competition ended, he had equaled those 1995 wins, with a silver in the 5K road race and gold in the other events.

MICHAEL TANDEY, Louisville, KY, entered the competition this year for the first time, at age 39. He competes in the novice class in basketball, billiards, bowling and weightlifting. Although he won no medals at the games, he enthusiastically told his new friends, “Wait 'til next year!”

This former S/SGT was in an auto collision while serving at the Army Training Center, Ft. Irwin, CA, in 1982. Ten days later, he awoke as a paraplegic, realizing for the first time in his life what a blessing it is to be able to walk. Overcoming resentment and self pity was no easy task, but with the help of others he succeeded.

At Hines VA Center in Chicago, he learned how to operate a car again, how to cook and take care of himself, and properly use a wheelchair. Another first-time realization was how inaccessible curbs, building interiors and public places are to those in wheelchairs.

For the past four years, Michael has been employed in the VA Claims Division. Today, he is an upbeat, outgoing person with a beautiful smile for everyone he sees.

JAMES V. DRAPPEAUX, of Indianapolis, was a Marine in Vietnam, but his injury came as a civilian in Los Angeles, when he walked in on a robbery in progress and was shot in the back.

Jim spent nine months at the VA Medical Center in Long Beach, wallowing in self pity. Afterwards his alcohol, drug abuse, and low self esteem caused his wife to divorce him and take their daughter away.

One day while decorating some wheelchairs in a VFW-sponsored event for some young MS patients, a ten-year old named Tommy told him how much he appreciated this “nicest present he had ever received.” Something about that sincere gratitude, by someone whose life was measured in months instead of years, stirred Jim's emotions.

At that point Jim vowed, “If this kid can live his short life expectancy with gratitude and hope, I ought to be able to pull myself out of this mental gutter!” And he did.

He quit drugs and alcohol on his own and as he says, “cleaned up my act,” before eventually marrying his current wife.

After becoming interested in the wheelchair games, Jim developed that special “can do” spirit that seems so infectious among these athletes. Each is heartened by the accomplishments of others and realizes the possibilities to overcome limitations, even if in small degrees, through the physical and mental therapeutic value of sports.

Jim competes in billiards, discus, javelin and shot-put, and although he won no medals this year, he placed high in these events. He is the same one who told me, “You're a winner here by just showing up!”