COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —
More than 300 athletes and 500 family members shared tears and laughter and made lifelong friends over the past eight days during the 2018 DoD Warrior Games here.
Wounded, ill and injured service members representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command, along with allied armed forces from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada competed in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, powerlifting, indoor rowing, swimming sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball June 1 through today at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
For many of the athletes, this was their first year competing at the Warrior Games, and the biggest challenge was showing up.
“For some of our guys, getting on the plane was their gold medal,” said Hillary Conway, the swim coach for the U.K. team. “Some of the team wouldn’t have gotten on a plane six months or a year ago. Winning a medal is an absolute bonus. For them to be here and thriving is absolutely amazing.”
She said the U.K., Canada, Australia and U.S. teams all look after each other. “We’ve been made to feel so welcome,” she said. “Everybody is so helpful. Our guys feel really appreciated. Being undervalued is very common among people who have mental health or physical injuries. We’ve been made to feel like absolute royalty.”
Her team came from all over the U.K. and just started gelling with each other. “It’s become a nice, tight-knit group who are looking after each other, but we’re being looked after by other teams as well,” she said.
Conway noted one instance was when a U.S. athlete with a service dog helped a U.K. athlete who had an anxiety attack during the opening ceremony.
“He came straight outside with his dog and helped her,” she said. “She shared a shirt with him today. Everybody appreciates what everyone else has been through. It’s been lovely.”
Anthony Dieli, a medically retired former Navy petty officer, was originally only going to compete in the 100- and the 200-meter runs, but enjoyed it so much that he decided to run the 400-meter as well. He said he was a little nervous to run at first because with his Alzheimer’s, his leg begins to drag a little.
His wife, Carolina, said the support and encouragement of his team and family gave him the strength to run the races. He also inspired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Rob Jones, a bilateral amputee, to finish a race with him. Jones finished the 400-meter race and doubled back to finish with Dieli.
Carolina said she also enjoys the camaraderie amongst the service members and how they pick on each other. “They’ll be sitting down and some of the guys will be sitting in a wheelchair, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, get up,’ but they’re joking. They’re like brothers and sisters. They’re family. All of the support is just awesome. It makes a huge difference.”
Tiffany Hudgins, a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant competing on the U.S. Special Operations Command team, said she saw some Australian athletes putting glitter on in the bathroom. “I told them, ‘Solid, I love it.’ Why didn’t I think of that? I love how everybody’s interested in each other’s culture, and we’re asking questions. It’s not weird. It’s great,” she said.
The Australian team brought back their inflatable kangaroo and baby kangaroo, or joey. They also have an Australian flag with a broom for the flagpole.
“We had to bring the ‘roo; it was such a big hit last year. It had to come back with a sibling, the little joey,” said Geoffrey Stokes, head coach for the Australian team and a retired Royal Australian Navy warrant officer. Last year, the baby ‘roo went home with Jon Stewart.
“It’s hard to explain when you’re a 55-year old man on an airplane. It’s my service ‘roo,” Jon Stewart said during opening ceremonies.
As for the broom flagpole, “It’s not the right flagpole, but it sends a message — we can clean up after us,” Stokes quipped. “We’re really pleased to be here and really grateful for the invitation to participate in such a fantastic event, to be able to socialize with like-minded people going through the same type of journey.”
Socom’s Navy Lt. Patrick Ferguson and his fiancé, Debra Esterces, said they hoped to sweet talk the Aussies into letting their popular Warrior Games service dog, Clyde, take home the little joey for a toy.
“I’m going to steal that kangaroo,” Ferguson joked.
“No one’s going to see a white fluffy dog with a kangaroo?” Esterces said laughing.
Team Spirit and Understanding
Canadian Army Bombardier Jason Melo said being at the Warrior Games is important for recovery because he can be around people who understand what he’s going through.
“At home, I don’t deal with a lot of people who understand what I’m going through, who can just look at you and know, hey, I’ve got to walk away for a second. They’re not in your face, saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ They understand. It’s definitely been a humbling experience to be around everybody,” he said.