A record contingent of U.S. servicemembers and veterans got a warm reception from their Russian hosts at the Winter Paralympics despite saber-rattling by politicians over the Ukraine.
The closing ceremony was held Sunday in Sochi, Russia, just as the Crimea was deciding whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia — a move slammed as illegal by President Barack Obama but approved by 95 percent of Crimean voters.
News reports suggest that anti-American sentiment is high in Russia, but that wasn’t reflected in the reception for the U.S. servicemembers and veterans at the games.
U.S. flag bearer and downhill ski racer Jon Lujan, a former Marine Corps sergeant, called the atmosphere in Sochi “awesome.”
Associated Press reported only “cheers and applause” for the U.S. sled hockey team when it defeated Russia to win the gold medal Saturday.
“The host country has been outstanding, and there are great volunteers,” Lujan said. “I don’t think we have had any focus on the Ukraine.”
Eighteen servicemembers and veterans competed at Sochi — up from the five veterans who participated at the 2010 games in Vancouver.
One reason for the increase is a partnership by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Lujan, 43, of Littleton, Colo., participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was injured when a truck he was riding in rolled off a road near Nassariya. He suffered two ruptured discs and was left with paralysis in his lower legs after damage to his spine during surgery.
A keen skier before his injury, Lujan was introduced to ski racing when he attended the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, sponsored by the VA in 2007. This year’s clinic, March 30-April 4 in Snowmass, Colo., will include about 400 disabled veterans.
Ski racing is a big part of his life.
“I train five days a week during winter and go to the gym seven days a week in summer,” he said.
Lujan’s Paralympics ended painfully with a crash that badly injured his knee. He’ll require surgery to get back on the slopes but is eager to return to the sport he loves.
According to Lujan, the high number of servicemembers and veterans participating in the Paralympics is the result of attitude.
“I think it is a direct result of that and veterans having good work ethic, drive and determination,” he said.