COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The number of military men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is around 40,000 and still growing. Their road to recovery is painful physically, emotionally and psychologically.
However, some have discovered the healing power of sports to rebuild their lives.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jessie White, an Iraq War veteran, is one example.
White, 36, hadn't trained for the shot put since he was in high school. But an injury from Iraq - in some ways - has him recapturing his youth. He has picked up hobbies, old and new, while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"I've done everything," White said. "I've learned to play golf since I was here. I never hit a golf ball in my life!"
At a glance, it's easy to miss his war wounds. Partially covered by a cuff of a sock are two vertical 2-inch scars on his right ankle that bear witness to a dangerous encounter with multiple improvised explosive devices or IEDs. He described them as a "daisy chain," a single detonator that triggers a series of bombs along a roadway.
"In the middle of the EVAC , I was outside of my truck and they set off another one," White recounted. "The compression from the IED broke my right ankle."
After two reconstructive surgeries and months of recovery and physical therapy, he learned about the inaugural military "Warrior Games" - kind of like the paralympics for wounded vets. White decided to try out, and he qualified to compete in archery and the shot put, competing against the best of his military counterparts at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
In all, 200 wounded warrior athletes from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines sparred for five days in seven events, including basketball, volleyball, cycling, archery, shooting, swimming, and track and field. The participants ranged from amputees to patients with spinal cord injuries to those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some disabilities were more apparent than others, but when the games began their disabilities seemed to disappear.
In the swimming preliminary, a double amputee swam in a heat against competitors who had all of their limbs. On the volleyball court, the rules required players to be seated no matter what their injuries. And the wheelchair basketball finals had as much heart and passion as you'd find in the pros.
Inspiration to Overcome
The Warrior Games symbolized much more than sport and competition. For the organizers, coaches and participants, they were about inspiring others to persevere and to overcome any obstacle.
"I think it's about understanding each other's disabilities, or abilities, and encouraging one another to embrace the 'new us' and understand our limitations," said retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, who won the silver medal in the women's 1500-meter. Pearsall explained the competition will help them to push the boundaries and overcome other hurdles, mentally and physically.
Their shared experience of being injured on the battlefield and the road to recovery creates a solid bond of support, which helps to build confidence, camaraderie and unparalleled sportsmanlike conduct. Organizers believe the benefits reach far beyond the players.
"To see family members here -- just seeing their son or daughter competing and smiling, that's part of the healing process," said Charlie Huebner, chair of the U.S. Paralympics. "That's what events like this do."
Marjo Brough traveled from California to cheer on her daughter, Rachelle.
"I'm going to cry," she said fighting back the tears. "It means a lot. You just look around, and you're so thankful that we have our arms and legs."
White's wife, Michelle, flew in from Maryland to watch him win silver in the shot put.
"You can't be anything but proud, whether you have family here or not," Michelle said. "For anybody out here that's competing, you got to feel something when you come out here. It's amazing."
For the men and women at this year's Warrior Games, the competition wasn't just about winning or losing. It was about self worth and a sense of pride.
"My life, right now, is the hands of the doctors, whether I stay in the Army or not," Staff Sgt. Paul Roberts said. "If this is the last thing I can do for the Army, I feel pretty good about it."
White said the games made him realize there are no limits. After earning his medal, he said he planned to share what he's learned with other wounded vets who are also having a tough time with their injuries.
"It's not over," he said. "You can do anything you want so long as you set your mind to it."