By Caryn Maconi / University of Colorado Boulder | Posted on July 21, 2012
Originally published as part of the Denver Post’s American Homecomings project

James Stuck’s first solid memory after his accident was waking up in a hospital bed in Germany.

Still in a haze, he asked the nurse if he still had his right leg. When she told him no, he broke down.

“That was my most human moment, my most vulnerable moment,” Stuck said. “Since then, it was a constant battle to get back on my feet.”

Stuck was driving a Humvee through Iraq in December 2005 with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division when the vehicle struck a roadside bomb, blowing off Stuck’s right leg below the knee. Once he regained consciousness and realized the toll the accident had taken on his body, the Pennsylvania native, a natural athlete, found himself in an emotional bind uncharacteristic for his always-cheerful persona.

But Stuck willed away the emotions in the only way he knew how: through sports. He spent a year in rehab at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., trying every athletic endeavor he could — from swimming to wheelchair basketball to shooting.

Now, Stuck is a member of the USA Sitting Volleyball Team. The team earned a silver medal at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, this year, just missing a berth to the upcoming Paralympic Games in London.

“Just being able to get back into sports is the best normal I could get back to,” Stuck said. “Sports plays probably the easiest role in keeping me emotionally stable … without sports, I would probably fall apart.”

John Register, founder of the Paralympic Military Sport Program of which Stuck was an early member, said his goal is to help veterans like Stuck use their injuries as motivation to accomplish new goals. The Paralympic Military Program has three major treatment facilities: the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, the US Navy Medical Center in San Diego, and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in D.C., the site of Stuck’s initial rehabilitation.

“Even though there are adverse times in our lives, we don’t have to think of them as a setback,” Register said of the program’s mission. “Sport gives [veterans] the platform for the life skills that they want to do.”

Those skills could include competing at a high level or earning a spot on a Paralympic team, receiving an education, or even returning to active duty.

Register, a Desert Shield and Desert Storm veteran in the Army and a Paralympian himself, knows firsthand the benefits that sports can offer injured service members. Register is a nine-time track and field gold medalist with the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) and had made the Olympic Trials for the 110m hurdles in 1988 and the 400m hurdles in 1992. When training in May of 1994, however, he landed wrong on a hurdle, severing the popliteal artery in his right leg. Due to poor circulation, Register’s muscle developed severe gangrene and was amputated five days later.

Refusing to be sidelined due to the injury, Register began swimming as a part of his rehabilitation. Just a year and a half later, he qualified for the 1996 Paralympic swim team and competed at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. During those games, he was inspired watching the Paralympic track athletes, and he set to work developing his own running prosthesis. By the time the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney rolled around, Register had qualified for the 100 and 200m dashes and the long jump; he earned fifth place in both sprint events and set an American record in the long jump, good enough for a silver medal.

In 2003, Register began working at the United States Olympic Committee and founded the Paralympic Military Programs as a way to help other injured veterans get involved in sports.

Register said war veterans gravitate naturally toward athletics as a way to recuperate after returning from combat.

“They have been in a very volatile environment — they’re warrior athletes,” Register said. “Their units have been training so they can be the best that they can be on the battlefield … They all have that innate ability to push.”

U.S. Army captain and Iraq veteran Micheal Durner, assistant national team coach and military/veteran coach for US Para-cycling, agreed that sports can fill a hole for veterans that was once occupied by the energy and activity of combat.

“For veterans that are injured especially, sports give them something to focus on and feel like they haven’t really lost anything,” Durner said. “They’ve gained something, gained a new level of intensity in life, which is something a lot of veterans feel they’ve lost.”

Jennifer Cooper Weatherford, a coordinator at the Brooke Army Medical Center, said the social atmosphere of sports rehabilitation is just as important as the physical benefit.

“Obviously the guys all come in at different times,” Weatherford said. “So it’s really a lot of the modeling and social interaction of being around other service members with similar injuries, and knowing they can do the same thing … In a time when everything seems negative, there’s a positive.”

Weatherford noted that only about five percent of program participants go on to become Paralympians, but that the program more often acts as a segue to other goals, such as becoming a better father or beginning a new career.

The importance of providing a space for injured veterans to interact with other service members who have similar backgrounds cannot be overemphasized, according to Ann Marie Meighan, program director for the Durango Adaptive Sports Association. The Durango, Colo., based program hosts ski schools for disabled athletes in the winter and multi-day river trips geared specifically toward veterans during the summer.

“People are just excited about the idea of spending five days getting away from real life and connecting with people who understand what they’ve been through,” Meighan said of the summer veterans’ trips.

Whether competing on a Paralympic team or simply using sports for rehabilitation, the camaraderie of military-specific programs is what keeps athletes committed, Register said. It’s called esprit de corps, translated as “morale of the group.”

“It’s being around your unit. The reason these athletes don’t quit is because they’ve been around people of a group,” Register said. “They are all at different levels of healing, but they share the common spirit of comradeship and devotion.”

That time with fellow veterans can also act as a transition into mainstream civilian life, said Bob Hoover, Vietnam veteran and president of OASIS (Outdoor Adventures for Sacrifice in Service) Adaptive Sports in Honeoye, New York.

“When you have an amputee or someone dealing with PTSD, they don’t want to get back into it, they don’t want to be around people,” Hoover said. “Many of them rely on relationships with prior military, and we’re trying to help them understand and give them circumstances to interact with those who have not been in the military, but who care about them and want to help them … We use sport as the vehicle to help them make that transition.”

From introductory camping trips and ski schools to the highest-level Paralympic Games, injured veterans turn to sports for the intensity, camaraderie and freedom that their accidents threatened to take away.

And for Stuck, the opportunity to get out on the court, to remain the athlete he’s meant to be, is worth every effort.

“There’s going to be a day when I say, ‘Wow, I’m old, and I can’t do this anymore,’ but I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to get back on my feet,” Stuck said. “It’s hard work, but anything you want in life is work.”