Warrior Games Day 3: Competitors overcome unbeatable odds

 
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Warrior Games Day 3: Competitors overcome unbeatable odds

Day 3 kicked off with archery events held at the Air Force Academy Field House. Retired Marine Cpl. Mark O’Brien was the only arm amputee competing in the event.

In 2004, O’Brien was injured in Ramadi, Iraq, when a rocket propelled grenade struck him in the knee while he was pulling security during a cordon and search. He lost his right leg above the knee and right arm above the elbow. After being flown back to the United States, O’Brien was stabilized in Bethesda before being moved down the road to Walter Reed. He continued his recovery there for nine months before being discharged from the Marine Corps in 2005. O’Brien has stayed busy since leaving the service by following his enthusiasm for archery and working as a motivational speaker.

Retired Marine Cpl. Mark O'Brien takes a shot during the Warrior Games archery competition. Photo by Sean Crosier

Despite his injuries, O’Brien did not seem hindered in the competition. After a disappointing shoot in the semifinals, he rallied during the finals for third and fourth place in effort to win the bronze medal.

When asked what he thought of his participation in the games, O’Brien said, “It’s good to be around the Marines and feel the brotherhood again…  except for the hurry up and wait.”

Of all the archery competitors participating, perhaps none was more inspiring than retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Castaneda. Castaneda was injured in the Philippines where he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Two months following the incident, he suffered a stroke. He is now confined to a wheel chair and suffers significant paralysis to his body. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, Castaneda is upbeat about his third Warrior Games.

Retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Castaneda. Photo by Sean Crosier

During his first Warrior Games three years ago, Castaneda swam the 50-meter and said it was probably the hardest thing he had ever done. In this year’s competition, he again participated in the recumbent cycle race but got a flat tire part way through the course. Still, Castaneda finished the course because he wanted to show his son what he could do. This was Castaneda’s first Warrior Games where his family was able to come and watch, thanks to the Hero Miles program of the Fisher house.  “I wanted to show my son that no matter what the obstacles are, never quit,” Castaneda said.

Castaneda’s can-do attitude could not have been more apparent in the archery competition. With the help of his coaches, Castaneda was able to adapt his equipment and participate despite his significant injuries. An assistant loads the arrow for him, and Castaneda uses his teeth to hold tension and release the arrow. Of all the competitors at the Warrior Games, he is the only one to use such a method.

When asked why he felt the games were important and why he was doing it, Castaneda said, “We want to teach our kids and everyone around us, never give up. Never. As Americans, we don’t give up. People take us for granted, that we’re lazy, that we’re fat or whatever, but they take us for granted. We’re Americans, and we’re all like that.  But, we don’t give up. Don’t give up. ” He credits an organization called Navy Safe Harbor for getting him involved in the Warrior Games. “Believe it or not, this (the games) has really helped me,” Castaneda said.

One of the more noticeable competitors in the archery was 6-foot-5-inch retired Army Staff Sgt. Kinga Kiss-Johnson. Originally from Romania, she initially came to the U.S. in 2001 on a student visa to attend college on a basketball scholarship. In fact, Kiss-Johnson played in the Division 1 final four championships to help Missouri pick up its win. A year and a half after 9/11, she decided that she needed to give back and serve the country that has given so much to her. According to her husband Bill Johnson, Kiss-Johnson arrived home one day and informed him that she had talked to a recruiter and was going to enter the Army in a transportation MOS. Her mind was made up, there would be no discussion.

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Kinga Kiss-Johnson. Photo by Sean Crosier

Kiss-Johnson was injured in Afghanistan when a driver crashed their vehicle, narrowly missing a Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED). Because she was in the turret acting as the .50 gunner, she sustained significant injuries to her neck and back, as well as a traumatic brain injury that affects her concentration. After months of recuperation, Kiss-Johnson now has a fused and replaced vertebrae and a limited range of mobility.

Her Warrior Transition Unit originally got her involved in wheelchair basketball. She was also introduced to archery during her recovery at Fort Gordon, Ga., where volunteers teach wounded warriors.  Kiss-Johnson stressed that without community support from organizations like The American Legion, Fisher House and the Hero Miles program, neither the games nor her participation could be possible. She stressed the importance of The American Legion, who has provided volunteers and resources to help her with archery.

Kiss-Johnson missed qualifier in last year’s Warrior Games, but this year she walked away with two silver medals, missing first place by only three points. When asked about future goals, Kiss-Johnson said she has her sights set on the 2016 Paralympics. Judging by her accomplishments so far, I don’t foresee her falling short of her goals. She is also competing in wheelchair basketball, but she had so sit out a game due to a concussion she received on the first day of competition.

Wheelchair basketball and floor volleyball are continuing all week, with the gold medal rounds taking place between the Army and Marine Corps (the leaders in the medal count).

Full competition results are available here.


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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.