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Veterans Wheelchair Games this week in Phila., South Jersey

Larry Foster, a U.S. Marine Corps wounded veteran from Los Angeles, competes in the slalom obstacle course as part of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh in Aug. 2011.

Some saw combat. Some did not.

Some were wounded in war. Some were not.

Yet all 650 men and women streaming into Philadelphia this week to race one another along the banks of the Schuylkill, or shoot targets, swing bats, swim, or compete for medals at rugby, table tennis, basketball, and soccer have served in the military.

And - like Bruce Husted of Marlton, who was thrown from a motorcycle while on active duty in the Navy in 1978 - they all compete in wheelchairs.

Their numbers promise to make the 2014 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which begin Tuesday in Philadelphia and three South Jersey towns, the largest in the Olympic-style games' 34-year history.

"The moment I hit the ground I was unable to move my legs," Husted, 61, recalled Sunday. He had shattered his T-11 and T-12 vertebrae and has never walked again.

This week's games will be the fourth for Husted, a former photographer who will compete in wheelchair hand cycling, softball, and air-rifle target shooting.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of American, this year's games have the theme "Philly: Where Heroes Make History."

"Whether it's service-connected or an accident or an illness, these were robust human beings used to serving their country and having a purpose," said Fern Billet, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and the six-day games.

"To find themselves in a wheelchair can be just devastating," said Billet, but the games "provide a way for them to come back, compete, find themselves and camaraderie. It provides a tremendous rehabilitational effect on the body and mind and spirit."

This year's games begin Tuesday with a demonstration of wheelchair quad rugby at 11:30 a.m. at Thomas Paine Plaza, 1401 JFK Blvd.

Official opening ceremonies are scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where most of the events will take place.

Moorestown High School will host the track and field events. Bowling and trap shooting will also take place in New Jersey. Closing ceremonies will be Sunday at the Convention Center.

All events are free and open to the public, which is urged to lend support by attending - and cheering. Information about the games, as well as times and venues for the many events, is available at www.wheelchairgames.org.

This will be the first time the Philadelphia area will play host to the games, which began in 1981 with just 74 athletes. Last year's games in Tampa, Fla., drew 567 athletes.

An outgrowth of wheelchair basketball begun at VA hospitals after World War II, the games are open to U.S. military veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition because of amputations, spinal-cord injuries, or illness, and receive care at VA medical facilities. Since 1987, a small number of British wheelchair veterans have competed as well.

Top performers in each event will take away medals, but these competitions are "not just for the glory of winning," explained Billet, "but for their physical and emotional effect."

Participating veterans are "using what they've learned" in rehabilitation and physical therapy at VA hospitals she said, and taking the "good feelings and successes" of the games "and carrying it over into their lives."

Because of the events' therapeutic effects, VA hospitals encourage men and women in wheelchairs able to join the games if they can, Billet said.

"We find that once a vet has participated in the games, he or she comes back year after year. They tell us it's just amazing, the camaraderie and pushing yourself to improve over the year before."

And that, said Husted, "is how I got in.

"I was ambushed in the hallway of Philadelphia Veterans' Hospital by an occupational therapist, Bethany Purdue."

Purdue had taken over as coach of the hospital's hand cycling, or wheelchair racing, team and wanted him to join. "She said, 'Oh, you can do the games,' " he recalled. "I said, 'What the heck.' "

Husted can cover 10 kilometers - about six miles - in 27 minutes, he said, which is "not too bad," but so far he has won medals only in softball. He is also in the top 15 percent of the air rifle competitors.

What he likes most about competing in the wheelchair games, he said, is that "it's one of the few times people in wheelchairs can get together with our own kind.

"Here, we're all equal, we're all eye-to-eye with one another. It's like being back in the service.

"And it does wonders for your self-esteem."

doreilly@phillynews.com

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