More than 500 American veterans went to Milwaukee to push themselves to the limit and have fun by participating in the 27th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (June 19-23). The event promotes rehabilitation and redefines life's possibilities.
Participants are all in wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries, neurological conditions, amputations or other mobility impairments. They represent many generations of veterans. The oldest are in their 80s; the youngest, from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in their teens.
Tom Brown, co-founder and Director of the National Wheelchair Games, says the annual event provides an opportunity for younger disabled veterans to learn from older ones that being disabled "doesn't mean that life ends; it just means that life takes a different road."
A wheelchair athlete himself, Brown says he was inspired by the International year of Disabled Persons in 1981 to launch the first National Veterans Wheelchair Games. "We had 7 different events back then and 74 veterans came to Richmond, Virginia. And on the grounds of VA (Veterans Affairs) Hospital, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games were born."
Since then, the Games have been held each spring in a different American city. It has become the largest event of its kind in the world, according to Doug Beckley, of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. His organization co-sponsors the games, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We have 17 Medal events, and three exhibition," he says. "The Medal events range from archery to hand cycling, power soccer to basketball, track and field, weightlifting, swimming, bowling, to name a few."
Wheelchair Games director Tom Brown says wheelchair athletes participating in these events showcase a wide range of skills and potential. "Several veterans started at the Veterans Wheelchair games as novice athletes and became para-Olympians," he says. "It shows them that they can succeed in anything they want to, as long as they put their mind into it and train."
The 2007 competition included some new features, including wheelchair curling as an exhibition event.
According to Tom Brown, the success of the Games depends mainly on support from the local community. Hundreds of volunteers help run the events, and in the process gain a new perspective on what the disabled can do. "These games show the community that people with disabilities can lead an active life. They are very competitive and have a lot of spirit."
After a traumatic injury on the battlefield, rehabilitation is key to getting a veteran back into the community and into life. Tom Brown says it's an ongoing physical, emotional and social process, and participating in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games helps bolster that recovery.