Paralympic Military — Sport as Rehabilitation
Who am I now? What
do I do with my life? How do I become employed? How do I provide for my
family? What will they think of me?
A veteran of the Gulf War and former Olympic and Paralympic athlete, John
Register saw those questions flash across the faces of soldiers as he
spoke at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas. And
he knew them all too well. He’d asked the same things himself 11
years ago while waiting for a prosthesis to be put on his left leg. BAMC
is the place for military rehabilitation, he’d told himself, but
the reassurances didn’t make his situation any easier.
Standing before a group of soldiers, all of whom had recently been injured
or had undergone amputations because of combat, Register had a mission:
to acknowledge any questions they may have about life after injury, and
to promote sport as an answer.
Register was tapped this year by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC)
to head its newest initiative—the Paralympic Military Program. By
providing Paralympic sports as a part of the rehabilitation process, the
project serves as an outlet for military members who have experienced
service-related injuries. “We’re doing this to give back and
show we are thankful for their service,” Register states. “It
is imperative for the growth process to have a family structure. We hope
we can provide that.”
Register spoke both at BAMC and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in
Washington DC, introducing the Paralympic Military Program to the Army’s
two Amputee Care Centers. He explained to the soldiers that just because
they’ve experienced a life-changing event doesn’t mean it
has to change their lives.
The Paralympic Military Program is an opportunity for soldiers not only
to try things they may have never tried before, but also to pursue goals
that were nowhere on the radar prior to their injury. “For a person
who may have never run a marathon on two legs, now maybe with a prosthesis
he will run the Boston Marathon. For a person who has never skied before,
all of a sudden he’s got one leg and he’s flying down a mountain
on a ski. That’s freedom,” Register declares.
Register understands that transition. His goals have changed too.
A three-time All-American, Register ran track at the University of Arkansas
and competed in the long jump and the 4x400-meter relay. He qualified
for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 110-meter hurdles the same year he
joined the Army. His athleticism allowed him to become a member of the
Army’s World Class Athletes Program, which provides military athletes
two years to train for the Olympic Games. His eyes were focused on the
1992 Games, but the Gulf War interrupted his training and he was called
to serve his country in the Middle East.
After returning from Saudi Arabia unscathed, he had a mere 10 months to
prepare for the 1992 Games. He qualified for the Olympic Trials and finished
17th in the 400-meter hurdles. Then Register began thinking: If he shaved
just half a second off his time each year, he would not only qualify for
the 1996 Olympics, but he’d be in the finals. “I was aspiring
to be in the finals,” Register recalls confidently. “Then
the injury happened.”
On May 17, 1994, while Register was running hurdles as part of his Olympic
training, he crossed a hurdle and landed wrong on his left leg. The jolt
severed the popliteal artery in his leg, cutting off circulation. He was
flown to BAMC to have his leg amputated above the knee. Later, he was
fitted for a prosthesis. Register retired from the Army but was hired
back as a civilian sports specialist with the World Class Athletes Program.
During his rehabilitation at BAMC, Register turned to the water to boost
his stamina. But swimming for kicks wasn’t enough. His desire to
compete again made the clock his opponent—and he won.
He achieved his goal of making the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, competing
as a swimmer and making it to the finals as a member of the 4x400-meter
medley relay team. Four years later, he was back at the Paralympics, returning
this time to the oval track. With a specially designed plastic running
prosthesis that gave him better control over his leg motions, Register
competed in the 100-meter dash and the long jump, where he won a silver
Now he’s telling others how they can follow in his footsteps—or
make their own.
Register recently returned to BAMC and spoke to rehabilitating soldiers.
Accompanying him were other Paralympic athletes, who helped demonstrate
sports many of the soldiers had never seen. “The guys watched closely,”
says Michelle Cano, a former case manager at BAMC. “We had one guy
who ran on a prosthesis for the first time. We had another who was an
amputee and sat in a racing wheelchair for the first time. He loved it
and now wants to compete. The guys are getting a better understanding
that there are no limitations to what they can do.”
“Sport opens doors,” Register asserts. “It’s powerful.”
His subsequent visit to Walter Reed Medical Center had the same results.
Soldiers walked into the medical center’s gymnasium and were in
awe of two wheelchair fencers in full combat. By day’s end, several
of the soldiers were also participating. Register explains, “We
want to get across that we know you’ve had a tragic accident, but
here’s how sport can help.”
Birth of the Paralympics
Organized sports for people with disabilities have existed in some form
for more than a century; sport for the deaf has been documented as early
as 1888, according to reports from the International Paralympic Committee.
But after World War II, the physical and mental rehabilitation sport provided
for returning servicemen rocketed to international attention the notion
of athletic competition for veterans with disabilities. It was soon recognized
that civilians with disabilities held equally strong athletic desires.
The flagship sport became wheelchair basketball. In 1946, teams were formed
in Asbury, England, thanks to Sir Ludwig Guttman, considered by many to
be the father of wheelchair sports. Wheelchair basketball games in America
began at approximately the same time, with the first teams formed by California
and New England chapters of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Sport for people with disabilities spread nationally and globally. Participation
surged in 1948, when the first multi-sport games for people with disabilities
were organized in Stoke Mandeville, England. Following the 1960 Olympics
in Rome, the world witnessed the first Paralympic Games, with approximately
400 athletes participating. This premier competition has since grown exponentially,
with the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens
hosting 3,837 athletes, including representatives from all five branches
of the U.S. military. Most military athletes were former soldiers, but
there was one active military competitor: U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd
Class Casey Tibbs. On leave from his assignment in Afghanistan, Tibbs
became the first active-duty soldier to compete in the Paralympic Games.
Tibbs, who has used a prosthesis on his right leg since a motorcycle accident
resulted in a below-knee amputation, won a gold medal in the 4x100-meter
relay and a silver in his division of the pentathlon.
In addition to the increasing number of athletic opportunities in the
Paralympic Games, there are just as many sport programs specifically for
soldiers, Register says. The problem has been tracking what programs soldiers
participate in and where they go when those programs are over. But the
comprehensive amputee rehabilitation programs at Walter Reed and BAMC
have centralized the outreach for initiatives such as the new Paralympic
Military Program. “We want to take a leadership role in reaching
out to athletes,” Register says. “We’re putting them
into a system so they can stay involved and so we don’t lose track
Army Amputee Care Centers at Walter Reed Medical Center and BAMC are staying
busy as the present conflict in the Middle East continues. In previous
wars that resulted in large numbers of soldiers with disabilities or amputations,
rehabilitation was in the hands of Veterans Affairs. This conflict is
the first in which the active military has taken full responsibility for
veteran rehabilitation, says Captain Shane Koppenhaver, physical therapist
and officer in charge of the amputee program at BAMC. “The military
has invested a lot of money and a lot of care into these soldiers’
rehabilitation,” he says. “And a lot of them—although
not the majority—are staying active in the military.”
The center at Walter Reed opened in 2004, and BAMC’s center opened
in January of 2005. Currently there are about 45 soldiers in the amputee
program at BAMC (eight inpatient and the rest outpatient), says Koppenhaver.
Most of them are enlisted in the Army and Marines, but two come from the
Navy and one from the Air Force.
For soldiers undergoing an amputation, rehabilitation begins two days
following surgery. Two weeks later, they get their prostheses and workouts
intensify. In uncomplicated amputations, soldiers can often achieve rehabilitation
within a month. Those with multiple injuries may need longer to heal.
“We help them, but they really help each other more than anything,”
says Mark Heniser, a physical therapist at BAMC. “These guys aren’t
patients; they’re a team. They all have different levels of injury
and different rehabilitation needs, but most are in the same age group
and all come from a military background. They lean on each other, compete
against each other and share experiences with each other.”
At BAMC the occupational therapists understand that integrating back into
everyday activities is a cautious process, so they take group trips to
Sea World, downtown San Antonio, golf outings and bowling competitions.
If pursued alone, says Koppenhaver, re-integration can be difficult. But
initiatives like the Paralympic Military Program make it easier. “Our
goal is to expose people and let them know what is out there for them
to do,” Koppenhaver says. “It’s important for them to
see guys who are further along in their rehab, guys who can run or walk
with their prostheses. They can talk with those guys and share information
about things we in the healthcare industry may forget to explain. They
can also see people who have been discharged from rehab and have fully
integrated into a normal life with their disability.”…Continued
in ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Loni Anderson issue include Letter from the Editor
— Rebuild with Accessibility; Senator Harkin — Embryonic Stem
Cell Research; Humor — Cell Mates; Headlines — iBOT, Drug
Therapy and Hurricane Aftermath; Recipes — Soups for the Soul; Front
of the Class — Book Excerpt; Tuberous Sclerosis — Disease
with a Million Faces; Loni Anderson — Smart, Sexy and Speaking Out;
COPD — What Smoking is Really Doing to Your Lungs; ADA Update —
15 Years and Counting; Laughing Matters — 6th Annual Comedy Showcase;
Nursing School — Students with Mulitple Disabilities; ABILITY House
— Behind the Scenes of a Smart Home; RespiteMatch.com — Matching
Caregivers with Consumers: World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences...