HAW RIVER, N.C. — All it takes is a few minutes with Mitch Moorehead to realize he’s irrepressible.
His laugh, his broad smile and his happy-go-lucky sense of humor draw you in and overshadow his physical limitations. Moorehead is a quadriplegic, with limited use of his hands. Treatment left him permanently hearing impaired and he has cochlear implants. He has a permanent tracheostomy and often has difficulty breathing.
He can’t be stopped. And now he has the medals to prove it.
During a trip to the 32nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, Va., last month — his first time competing — Moorehead took home a gold medal in his division for nine ball, pool, and a bronze medal in the motorized slalom. He was within spitting distance of medaling in the air rifle and bowling events.
Moorehead, 40, was one of 600 paralyzed veterans who participated in the games June 25-30.
The athletes came from nearly every state and overseas, including Puerto Rico and England to compete in 21 events, from swimming, basketball and rugby to softball, weightlifting and archery. Some were paraplegic, and had lost the use of their legs. Others, like Moorehead, had lost some or all the ability to move their arms and legs.
He watched and cheered, amazed, as competitors with almost total neck-down paralysis completed their events.
“If you’re having a bad day, go watch the games. You’ll see people who have it much, much worse than you doing much better than you,” Moorehead said. “It was one of the longest, most enjoyable weeks I’ve had since I got shot.”
A decorated veteran of the war in Iraq, Moorehead received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his heroism April 4, 2003, when his team discovered a tank that had been ambushed. Under heavy fire, his marksmanship resulted in the evacuation of two critically wounded soldiers and saved the life of a captain aboard the tank.
A 1990 Graham High School graduate, Moorehead served 4½ years in the Marine Corps before he was honorably discharged in the fall of 2003.
He returned to his wife, Wendy, whom he’d married just before his deployment earlier that year to their home outside Indianapolis. But the relationship was rocky. By the next year, she had moved out and was living with Charles Phillips in Carmel, Ind.
In the early hours of Nov. 26, 2004, he traveled to Phillips’ home to end his marriage.
Phillips shot him three times. One bullet pierced his lung and lodged in his spine. The other two hit his right shoulder and right arm. He was paralyzed by the near-fatal injuries and spent months in hospitals in the Midwest and Virginia.
His mother, Susan Moorehead, recounted some of the complications, numerous surgeries and brushes with death throughout his recovery. She and his father, Reggie, spent months anxiously attending him, seeing him from surgeon to surgeon and monitoring his condition.
“It’s a miracle he’s still here,” Susan Moorehead said Friday. “He says he’s alive for a reason.”
The Mooreheads have been told by prosecutors and officials as high up as the Indiana governor’s office that Phillips won’t be prosecuted for the shooting. Mitch Moorehead is at peace with that decision but Reggie and sometimes Susan still struggle with it.
“What’s gone is gone. I just have to live my life the best way I can,” Mitch Moorehead said. “Hate and negativity are so powerful. They drain you. They can change your physical health. It’s not worth it. I would much rather live and be happy.”
A PHYSICAL THERAPIST at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., encouraged Mitch Moorehead to sign up for Team Mid-Atlantic this spring. The team has about 40 members from Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia.
He originally chose bowling, pool, air rifle and power soccer. The soccer team was full, but they told him there were still slots left in the motorized slalom.
“Just sign me up for that,” he said. He had no idea how the slalom would work with a wheelchair.
When he arrived June 25, that event was first. It resembled a large, complex obstacle course, with cones and ramps to maneuver on and around. Hitting cones on the course adds seconds to a competitor’s time.
Moorehead only hit one cone and finished with a time of 2:50.25.
There wasn’t a scoreboard. He was just hanging out with teammates afterward when one of them found out he’d won gold. Moorehead knew his time was close. He went to the scorekeepers’ table to check and was told he’d placed third.
“I went up there expecting not to medal in anything. I thought I might have a chance at placing in bowling,” he said.
Participants compete in the games according to the severity of their injuries and their level of familiarity with the games, from novice to master. Mitch Moorehead was classified as a level 1B Novice in all four of his events.
His gold medal came in nine ball. Moorehead uses a slightly modified cue, with a Velcro strap, since he’s unable to grip the stick with his hands.
“I ended up lucking into the gold on that one,” he said. “Just to even get close to a medal is good, especially competing against some of these guys who are there every year,” Moorehead said.
He’s already made plans for next year’s games in Tampa, Fla., and is prepared to travel to Puerto Rico for the 2014 games.
Susan Moorehead says the games are as much about families as the athletes. Spinal cord injuries and their rehabilitation are difficult for families to adjust to, as well. She enjoyed being with others facing the same adjustments and watching many athletes come out of their shells.
Mitch Moorehead said the games give hope and allow athletes to share tips and tricks that have worked for them
“It shows you what’s possible,” he said. “Improvise, adapt and overcome. It’s a way of life.”
Now he wants to get more North Carolinians involved in the games. He’s working with the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Bridge II Sports to reach out to other paraplegics and quadriplegics, hoping they will be as inspired by the games.
Earlier this year, he earned his associate degree in business. He aims to go back to the Department of Defense with a degree in intelligence management.
“I want to do as much as I can by myself. That’s just the way I am, because I know there’s going to be a time when I can’t do it on my own,” he said.