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Army veteran to compete at Valor Games Southeast this month

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News service) | Published: May 14, 2017

Arod Rodriguez looks back at his life and can't quite believe how far he's come.

Just a few years ago, Rodriguez was essentially a hermit -- refusing to leave his Fayetteville home and shunning anything that would expose him to the world.

Severe post-traumatic stress kept Rodriguez indoors. That lifestyle, after more than a decade in the Army, didn't suit him. As his health worsened, nagging injuries grew more severe and more debilitating.

But today, Rodriguez is fit and smiling. He's days removed from a 100-plus mile bicycle trek around Raven Rock State Park and, while sore, he's looking forward to getting back on his bike to continue training.

Rodriguez, a 45-year-old native of New York who served 11 years in the Army before he was medically discharged in 2005, jokes about feeling slightly super human as he poses in a shirt that bears the red, white and blue shield of comic book hero Captain America.

Like nearly every hero to grace page and screen, Rodriguez has had enemies. But unlike the colorful Marvel characters that come together to battle aliens and super villains, Rodriguez's greatest enemies are within his own head.

It's the nervous tick that washes over him in a dark and unfamiliar room. The over-alertness that has him scanning Fayetteville roadsides for bombs, constantly looking for escape routes and avoiding crowds.

It's the same post-traumatic stress that helped end his Army career, the anxiety that kept him indoors for nearly seven years, that essentially put his life on hold and sent him down a spiral of depression.

But like Captain America's Avengers, Rodriguez also has a team around him. Several, actually.

There's Bridge II Sports, the nonprofit organization that promotes sports among those with disabilities and which, later this month, will host a three-day adaptive sports competition in North Carolina known as Valor Games Southeast.

There's Operation Enduring Warrior, Warriors 4 Life, Team Red, White and Blue and Project Hero -- all organizations aimed at helping wounded warriors, integrating veterans back into society or providing vital support for veterans in need.

Each of the organizations has played a big role in Rodriguez's return to society and his newfound role as inspiration for others who have faced similar demons.

This month, between May 22 and 25, Rodriguez will be one of more than 120 disabled veterans who will compete as part of the Valor Games Southeast.

Numerous adaptive sports competitions will be held at the University of North Carolina, Duke University and Lake Crabtree.

Rodriguez will compete in cycling, boccia, sitting volleyball, rowing and table tennis. But he said the event isn't about winning. It's about competing against himself.

"I challenge myself," he said. "I don't race. Because of my injuries -- I'm still not there yet. But I ride to motivate myself and, maybe, inspire others."

That's the greatest reward, Rodriguez said as he proudly showed a note from a fellow veteran he met on a recent ride.

Riding is therapeutic for Rodriguez. He said some veterans have gardening or other hobbies to keep them focused and help them heal, but he has his bike.

It's not a cure, he explained. But cycling has served as a stepping stone on the path to recovery.

"I feel good about what I'm doing," he said.

Rodriguez deployed in the early days of the war in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment. That and other parts of his time  in the Army left him with post-traumatic stress, a traumatic brain injury and a cervical spine injury, according to officials.

Still, he said his medical discharge in 2005 came as a shock.

"I became a hermit. I didn't want to go anywhere," Rodriguez said. "I was really down. Down in the dumps."

His family tried to help him along the way. His wife gave him tough love, always looking for ways to get him out of his shell, networking with other caregivers to find ways to help.

The change came four years ago, when Rodriguez's wife, Ingrid, and son, Damien, began an effort to get more active.

Rodriguez joined them out of a need to be with them and support them. He didn't realize it at the time, but they also were helping him.

"I picked a bike up and after I rode it for the first time I felt freedom," he said. "I felt peace of mind."

It wasn't easy. Rodriguez's injuries made it painful to ride at first. But Damien pushed him to keep it up.

At an event, he would point to a veteran missing an arm or a leg and ask his father what his excuse was.

"He would say, 'He's missing limbs and look how happy he is,'" Rodriguez said. "I couldn't say no."

"If it wasn't for my son and wife, I wouldn't have gotten out of the funk," he added. "I wouldn't be here."

Rodriguez had a history with bicycles.

As a younger man he was into BMX. Before joining the Army, he worked as a bicycle messenger on the streets of New York City.

Something Rodriguez thought he had grown out of became a lifeline.

He's gotten back into shape. Physical pain that was once debilitating is now manageable. And today, he rides almost daily.

More importantly, the relationships he's made with other veterans have been vital.

"I have felt very overwhelmed," Rodriguez said. "I've been crashing and burning, only to have another veteran call and ask how I'm doing."

"Who knows where I would be today without them," he said. "This is my chance to live a little longer and want to live a little longer."

Not everything is perfect with Rodriguez's recovery.

He still avoids heavy traffic. And even now, the site of a pile of trash on the side of the road can remind him of a bomb that isn't there and derail his entire day.

"I am expecting something to go bang," he said.

But Rodriguez is getting out more. He's cycled for hundreds of miles. And sometimes, he can push past where his mind tells him the bomb will be.

"I'm still dealing with struggles," he said. "But I have found something to get me through every day."

As he continues to improve, Rodriguez is helping spread a message of hope to other veterans.

He meets a small group at the Hercules Physical Fitness Center on Fort Bragg every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. The group rides for anywhere from six to 13 miles.

"That's the beauty of it," Rodriguez said. "It brings us together. They're my battle buddies."

dbrooks@fayobserver.com

(c) 2017 The Fayetteville Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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