Paralyzed veterans learn life, work skills from competitive sports
Bay Area News Group November 28, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — Marine Corps veteran Kyle Hansel of Pacifica is making a belt for his mother, using lessons, skills, and a renewed faith in himself gained from competitive sports despite hands and many muscles that don’t work.
His mom Teresa loves turquoise, so he’ll paint the bottom layer of the belt that blue-green hue, to gleam through decorative gaps he will laboriously cut in the top layer.
The work, like many of the tasks in his life, requires “adaptive” techniques he has honed through wheelchair rugby, archery and other sports he competes in thanks to the local chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
Hansel, 33, made it back intact from his 2012 tour in the violent desert of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, but it was an outing five years later with his little brother to the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace in Daly City that left him quadriplegic and put him in a wheelchair. Thrown off a mechanical bull, Hansel suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“For the year or two after my injury there was a big feeling of being alone,” Hansel says. “Being in a wheelchair, I was on an island. People at restaurants don’t talk to me. They talk to whoever is standing with me. I’m not seen.”
Coming back has not been easy. Growing up in Pacifica, Hansel lived an active youth, playing soccer, baseball and basketball in school, and ripping around the hills on mountain bikes with his friends. When he became an adult in the Great Recession, he found jobs scarce, so he joined the Marines to learn to be a mechanic and became a diesel specialist. He left the Corps and entered a college gun-smithing program in North Carolina.
His hands, he says, were his life — until the fall from the bull. While he was trying to recover at his in-laws’ farm in North Carolina, his marriage fell apart. His mom and dad suggested he move home, and came and got him.
Two years ago, a recreational therapist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto — which has a spinal-cord injury center — connected Hansel with the Bay Area and Western Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Hansel’s world opened up.
“The rec therapist says, ‘We’re going to New York for the wheelchair games,’” he says. He chose to compete in soccer, power lifting, a slalom obstacle course and air-rifle shooting. Then the PVA sent him to Arizona for another National Veterans Wheelchair Games competition.
“I get off the elevator, this woman approaches me, says, ‘Are you quadriplegic?’ I said yes. She said, ‘We need you to play rugby.’ I said, ‘Sure — what’s rugby?’”
Hansel found himself surrounded by more than 500 people who were in fundamental ways just like him: “No matter where you look, there’s a wheelchair rolling around,” he says. “We are all very competitive. We are having the time of our life. That sort of spun my head around to know that all these sports and activities are available even though only my arms work.”
Hansel had found a community that brought him back into the camaraderie of his days in the military. And he has become a chapter board member in the PVA. Hansel, with help from his new comrades and the veterans group, has voted himself off lonely island.
“He used to be pretty shy,” said Kory Amaral, the chapter’s executive director. “When I first met him, he would hardly say two words.”
About 60% of the veterans the PVA serves are, like Hansel, paralyzed from accidents or disease unrelated to their military service, Amaral says. The nonprofit, founded in 1947, pays for the flights and hotel rooms for paralyzed veterans to attend the annual Wheelchair Games that include track and field, various team sports, swimming, bowling, and shooting, and an annual winter sports event that features skiing, hockey and other sports. PVA is seeking $45,000 through Wish Book donations to help support the program and veterans like Hansel.
“Once I get them in the door, I can show them how adaptive sports and recreational activities are for everyone,” Amaral says. “Their disability may stop them at first, but when they see others doing it, they realize they can do it too. Once they are hooked, they help mentor novice athletes.”
The local PVA chapter has more than 500 members and serves more than 1,000 veterans altogether, working closely with the VA. The chapter sponsors wheelchair basketball and rugby teams, offers eight different programs including sports and recreation, and provides peer mentoring. The group also lobbies Congress on funding the VA.
The sports Hansel has taken up require him to figure out how to adapt to gear that typically demands full-body capability. “What sports have taught me is that anything can be done if I find a way to adapt,” he says. “Every sport turns into a puzzle of what needs to be strapped to what or which body part can make this move possible, and that transfers to daily life.”
Whether he’s playing sports or working on leather or firearms, adapting usually means Velcro. To hold a bow or ping-pong paddle, he has a cuff that wraps around his hand to turn it into a fist. To shoot an arrow, he uses a wrist cuff that clips onto the bowstring so he can bend the bow, and he lets the arrow fly by triggering the string release with a sideways movement of his jaw. To cut leather, he inserts the handle of a knife into a glove made for pushing a manual wheelchair. To imprint designs into the leather, he wraps the handles of stamping tools with cloth so his curled hand can hold them in place while he hits them with the hammer stuck into his wheelchair glove.
“The Marines say, ‘One mind, any weapon,’” he says. “The weapons are replaced by tools and my mind needs to figure out which group of tools can be used to complete the mission.”
In his garage, above his leather-working tools, are four old baseball mitts — raw material for his budding leather-goods business. He pulls out his own wallet, one he made from the rich, brown leather of a baseball glove, with the stitched logo of the mitt’s manufacturer Rawlings on one side. In a drawer are five other wallets he has made to sell.
Hansel, living with his parents and four dogs in Pacifica, does not know what the future holds, but he’s on his way into it with new energy and self-confidence.
“There’s so much want and motivation to do everything,” he says, “to be my own person now.”
The Wish Book Series
Wish Book is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization operated by The Mercury News. Since 1983, Wish Book has been producing series of stories during the holiday season that highlight the wishes of those in need and invite readers to help fulfill them.
Donations will help the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Bay Area and Western Chapter sponsor members to attend various community events and sporting activities for the Paralympics and participate in track & field and team sports. Goal: $45,000.
How to give
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com/donate.
Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com.
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