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Valor Games help veterans battle through injuries

By MARK EMMONS | San Jose Mercury News | Published: June 11, 2013

SAN RAMON, Calif. — Ryan Sykes stares intently at his computer, scrolling through photos where a rugged-looking man, wearing fatigues and often carrying a weapon, poses in mountainous terrain.

"That's who I am," Sykes says in a halting voice. "I'm trying to be that same guy."

He is in a wheelchair now, his left side partially paralyzed — one result of a traumatic brain injury suffered just weeks before he was due to complete his fifth and final deployment in Afghanistan as a Navy special warfare operations analyst.

But while his life was changed forever, he has never stopped living.

Sykes continues through more photos, these after his 2008 injury, where he is scuba diving, sky-diving, rock climbing, surfing, cycling, skiing. His photo collection will grow after he competes in the upcoming Valor Games Far West, designed to encourage veterans and service members with disabilities to stay physically active.

"I've always been kind of an adventurer and adrenaline junkie," he said. "I guess I don't even think of myself as disabled. Yeah, I have some issues. But mostly I can do whatever anybody else can do. Or I'll find a way."

It has been a team effort rebuilding his life. The San Ramon-based Sentinels of Freedom group has created a volunteer network that does everything from acting as chauffeurs to helping him with Diablo Valley College classes — which aren't easy for a man with some cognitive impairment. But Sykes, 31, has done the heavy lifting.

"If you had seen Ryan four years ago when we first met him, you would have thought that he was going to be living in a VA convalescent home the rest of his life," said Mike Conklin, the Sentinels of Freedom chairman and CEO. "But this kid just does not stop. He's come a long way, all in small steps."

Added Sykes' mother, Melonie Staser: "You would think that someone who has been through what he has would just want to give up. But that's never who he has been."

Sykes grew up in the Northern California town of Grass Valley as an outdoorsy kid who loved bike riding and ran cross-country in high school. He joined the Navy a year before 9/11, and after the terrorist attacks he began the sort of clandestine military work that he still won't discuss beyond saying his nine deployments included two tours in Iraq.

"Back then, he wouldn't even answer when I asked him if he could see sand," said Staser, who grew up in San Jose.

On March 3, 2008, Sykes was a petty officer first class stationed in eastern Afghanistan, working at night "because that's when al-Qaida likes to work."

He has little memory of the motorcycle accident while he was on-duty that would leave him undiscovered along a road for

hours until the following dawn. Sykes now says he probably shouldn't have survived, and Staser's memory is that doctors had their doubts considering the severity of his brain injury, internal bleeding, collapsed lung and facial fractures. He remained in a coma for weeks.

It wouldn't be until much later that Sykes, who received a Bronze Star, fully understood what happened and decided: "All right, this is your life. I have to accept what I can't change. But let's see what I can do to make it better."

Even after 18 months in hospitals, though, Sykes had limited use of his left side, could barely speak, and had double vision, ringing in his ears and short-term memory problems. Yet while brain injury often results in personality changes, Sykes largely had emerged the same positive guy.

That's what Conklin saw. The 10-year-old Sentinels of Freedom is a nonprofit that assists about 120 severely disabled veterans around the country. Sykes was one of their most challenging cases, and they moved him to a San Ramon apartment close to their headquarters to get him back on his feet, which included assisting him through a divorce. (Sykes has a young son who lives in England.) A support team, including volunteers from a local Rotary Club, is on-call for whenever he needs a hand.

"We provide the positive reinforcement, but the attitude is all him," Conklin said. "You can't be in his situation and not be a little blue some days. But he's such a great lesson for the rest of us. Every day starts as a bad day because just getting his clothes on is an ordeal. But he does it, and there's not much 'woe is me' there, either."

Sykes lives on his own with an energetic service dog, Docker. He manages his own finances, takes one college class a semester and works out three times a week as he strives to recapture more use of his body.

Conklin and Staser both said they sometimes worry about him trying to do too much. But they usually reach the same conclusion: That's just Ryan.

Testing himself is why he will compete in cycling and archery at the upcoming Valor Games. Started in Chicago in 2011 and now held at four sites around the country, the games are a low-key competition with an emphasis on connecting disabled veterans with sports-minded groups in their communities.

"We want to turn a three-day event into a 365-day-a-year lifestyle," said Pam Redding, the event director. "Don't think for a millisecond that these aren't competitive people. But there are things way more important than medals."

Sykes knows first hand. The brain injury, he said, "sent me back to zero." But he likes challenges. While he remains an avid cyclist, now riding a recumbent bike, he has never tried archery. Sykes isn't expecting great things. But he plans on having fun.

"Sometimes I do think about where my life was heading, and what I don't have now with the injury," he said. "But I don't want to sit around and feel sorry for myself. I keep looking for opportunities to better myself and be as much as I can be."

Later, Sykes is at his computer, not far from a white board with the handwritten words: "Nothing worth having comes easy." He keeps returning to the photos where he's jumping out of planes, riding waves and heading down ski slopes.

He's smiling at the memories.

"I look at these and they remind me of what I'm capable of," he said. "And it helps make tomorrow's tasks more miniscule."

 

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