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Veterans learn adaptive sports to adjust after life-changing injuries during service

By JOE PAISLEY | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 11, 2015

For retired Army Sgt. Justin Bryant, Wednesday raises mixed feelings.

"Veterans Day is a good day and a bad day for me," said Bryant who retired due to cumulative effects of three tours in Afghanistan. "It's always held a place in my heart. Businesses give you things and a lot of people are nice enough to come up and thank you for your service. But this day is about being grateful for the veterans who died serving so we could be here today."

Bryant is also grateful to the organizers and sponsors who sponsored a three-day adaptive sports camp for him and 18 other veterans living with disabilities. The Colorado Springs resident and 18 others were able to continue their work adjusting to their lives and abilities after the military with the help of the clinics held by Team Semper Fi and Team America's Fund around the nation.

The 17 men and two women took part in a daylong wheelchair basketball clinic Tuesday, after spending Monday learning sitting volleyball. They will try the high-contact sport of wheelchair rugby Wednesday to conclude the event at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, which was held in conjunction with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

And while he may not have paid the ultimate price for his country as those he honors Wednesday, Bryant, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and injuries to his knees and lower legs, has endured much himself.

Part of what makes these camps effective in both physical and emotional therapy is that his experience is much like the others at the camp. These events, which are held all over the country, including a track and field camp held at the OTC in September, resonate with veterans.

"It was a big part of the physical and emotional therapy and I could feel the difference right away," said Dominic Thiemann, a Marine Corps veteran from California. "It's all really up to you how much you push yourself."

"It's good to meet new people," said Dayton, Ohio, native and retired Marine Zach Blair. "I always loved basketball so it was important to me to get back into this."

These beginner clinics are a great help to veterans who are new to adaptive sports, such as retired Army mortician Andrea Morain. She is adapting to life dealing with TBI, PTSD, nerve and spine damage suffered during an attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The first step for her was made only a few months ago.

"I sank into depression for years but I decided I wanted to live," the Newport News, Va., resident said. "Everyone is very accepting. We have a former NFL player (Dave Vobora) who is teaching us about nutrition and (strength training) and gave us his personal cell number to call him just to talk day or night. You don't get that kind of help from every program."

That was the genesis for the Team Semper Fi Foundation, which was founded by Marine wife and nurse Karen Guenther with $500 in 2003. The foundation, which added Team America's Fund to serve all the military branches, has donated $150 million since, said associate director Sam Tickle.

That includes paying for Bryant's sports wheelchair so he can take part in these events. Meeting and competing against others, including those dealing with more severe physical injuries, motivates him.

One of the group's snowboarding clinics opened his eyes when he saw a double-leg amputee from Pueblo compete.

"People like that inspire me," he said.

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©2015 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

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