Marine veteran Raymond Cardoza successfully bench presses 287 pounds at the Marine Corps Trials on March 4, 2023, at Camp Pendleton.

Marine veteran Raymond Cardoza successfully bench presses 287 pounds at the Marine Corps Trials on March 4, 2023, at Camp Pendleton. (Nelvin C. Cepeda, The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

OCEANSIDE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Whether they bench pressed 55 pounds or 350, everybody got applause during Saturday’s powerlifting competition at Camp Pendleton.

That’s because all who participated in the event carried a battle scar of one type or another with them as they slid onto the bench. Supporting each other was more important than the number of plates loaded on the bar.

“It’s camaraderie, a sense of belonging,” said Wade Spann, a competitor from San Clemente and a Marine veteran. “The three things all veterans need are purpose, identity and community.

“I’ve lost a lot of guys to suicide and overdose and the biggest thing is, I can tell they don’t have any of those three.”

While he took home a bronze medal in his weight class, that’s just a piece of metal. The whole point was being among others who have lived similar experiences, survived similar trauma — a tribe.

“This keeps you involved with the Marine Corps, and it keeps me in a healthy mindset and in a healthy physical state while I’m going after my goals,” Spann said.

The powerlifting event was one of 11 different sports included in the 13th annual Marine Corps Trials currently underway at Pendleton and hosted by the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.

Established in 2007, the Wounded Warrior Regiment is designed to provide a single point of contact for Marines sailors and their families through all phases of recovery from injury. Headquartered in Quantico, Va., the regiment has two battalions at Pendleton and Camp Lejune in North Carolina.

The trials, which run through March 12, are not restricted to U.S. Marines and veterans but are open to service members from other allied countries, drawing entrants from Colombia, Estonia, France, Georgia, Italy, Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Sgt. Cornelius VanLooijengoed from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps was there to compete. Still active duty, he said he struggled with behavioral problems similar to post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Like Spann, he said the competition is secondary to communing with other service members.

“The competition is one thing, but what I enjoy the most is talking with the other guys; we have been through the same things,” VanLooijengoed said.

The competition also serves as a qualifying event for the Warrior Games Challenge in June at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.

Powerlifting coach and retired Navy Capt. LJ Belsito said the Wounded Warrior Regiment and competitions are designed to keep injured service members connected to the Corps and with headquarters buildings and training facilities on base — even after they have retired.

The program is designed to provide the kind of structure that leads to progress in dealing with the wounds of combat.

“A lot of them are very depressed when they come in, they have a lot of physical and emotional scars,” Belsito said. “But this gives them a purpose to show up, and it gives them a chance to establish the fact that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to.”

Other sports included in the trials include: cycling, archery, swimming, shooting track, sitting volleyball, rowing, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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