Adaptive sports helped Army Veteran Dan Alston regain confidence lost in the wake of a life-changing diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2008.
For Alston, it took time. He had served 13 years as a 131A Field Artillery Targeting Technician, which took him all over the world and left him with injuries, including back, neck and knee problems as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He continued to serve, but in late 2007, while stationed in South Korea, his legs went numb.
“They did an MRI of my back and all it showed was a bulging disc,” Alston says. “I returned to Ft. Bragg and the feeling returned to my legs, but about a month later, I went out for a run and the right side of my face, arm and chest went numb.”
A back, neck and head MRI revealed lesions consistent with multiple sclerosis (MS). Alston permanently retired in 2013 as a Chief Warrant Officer 2, devastated over the loss of his beloved Army career and the impending promotions of those he had served alongside throughout his career.
“Now all of my classmates are looking at promotions for Chief Warrant Officer 4,” he says. “But they – especially Joshua White – make me feel good by saying that ‘we’ made it; they still make me feel like I’m there.”
Many times, however, that feeling of being there has not been enough. Even before his permanent retirement, Alston went through the natural cycle of depression knowing that MS could claim not only his military career but also his active lifestyle and plans for his family. “For about four years, I wasn’t very involved with my family and friends like I should have been; I was isolated,” he says. “I wondered why MS had happened to me.”
By 2012, Alston started to see a sliver of light after attending a transition training course on computers through the Wounded Warrior Project. While it did not bring him fully out of his isolation and depression, it planted a seed, and in 2014 – after moving with his family to Durham, N.C., and beginning recreational therapy at the Durham VAMC – a fellow veteran gave him a handcycle to try.
Alston began to discover that while he couldn’t change his MS, he could adapt to it. The initial gratification found in a handcycle gave him the confidence to try other sports, namely basketball, bowling and table tennis. While fatigue remains his greatest challenge with MS, Alston says sports tire him but also help him – table tennis in particular – manage challenges like hand-eye coordination.
“Doing sports and events is confidence-building and brings me back to life,” he says. “These are things I thought I would never do again. It’s not like I’m not getting it done; I’m just doing it differently now.”
Alston is also an accomplished artist, taking first place at the Durham VAMC arts festival in 2015 for his drawing of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I have trouble with my hands and it’s hard for my brain to focus; it takes me a while to finish one drawing,” he says. “I’m trying to learn every bit I can about my MS and how symptoms come after certain activities.”
The accomplishments in sports and art over the past two years have given Alston the confidence to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Alston will compete in bowling, basketball, nine-ball and table tennis.
“I want to experience the Games for myself and decide if it’s something I want to continue doing,” Alston says. “But I expect it to be an awesome time because other veterans have told me such good things about it and how it helps them cope with whatever they’re going through.”
Rolling into his first Games, Alston will not only seek to learn, but encourage, talking with his fellow veterans about how he maintains an active lifestyle through sports participation, family activities and volunteer work at the Durham VAMC and Disabled American Veterans.
“The most important part is to focus on what you can do versus what you can’t,” he says. “Focusing on what you can’t do will only back you into a hole and keep you there. It’s easy to try to focus on the glory days, but you have to focus on the ones in front of you. And don’t do it alone.”
About his family, Alston adds, “I want to thank my wife, Veronica, son, Daniel, daughter, Olivia and all of my closest friends for sticking by my side and never giving up on me.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.