Torch Passes to 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati

NVWG 2016_basketball and flagAs the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) came to a close on Sat., July 1, the focus quickly shifted to the 2017 Games in Cincinnati.

Nearly 600 athletes watched as the 36th Games came to a close and the torch was passed to the Cincinnati delegation planning the 37th Games coming to the Buckeye state July 17-22, 2017.

“The 37th Games in Cincinnati will be in the home of so many of established athletes who have participated in the Games for a number of years,” said Ellen Graf-Jansen, an administrative officer at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. “The whole concept and feel of the Games is nothing new to us.”

While the official theme and logo are still being determined, the underlying theme will be Cincinnati’s status as “Porkopolis” – a name that dates back to the 1850s when it was designated as the largest pork-producing city in the world.

“Cincinnati is known as Porkopolis due to the German immigrants who put our town together,” Graf-Jansen said. “Our theme will center around pigs.”

The 37th Games also will be defined by its display of the color purple, consistent with the military’s significance of the color as well as Cincinnati’s other nickname as “The Queen City,” for its early origins of proud citizens who dubbed it the “Fair Queen of the West.”

“Participants will be treated like royalty at the Cincinnati Games,” Graf-Jansen said.

Triathlon will make its second debut as an exhibition sport at the 37th Games. The other exhibition sport is still being reviewed, but two possible options will be pickleball or lacrosse, Graf-Jansen said.

Ohio is also known for its annual Buckeye Wheelchair Games, which take place each spring for Veterans as well as adults and children in wheelchairs to enjoy two days of adaptive sports. The event – part of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s national air rifle circuit – is considered a precursor to the NVWG.

In March 2017, leading up to the Games, Cincinnati will host the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which presents award-winning films by and about people with disabilities. Cincinnati was the second city after New York to begin hosting the festival, and in 2014, the city became the national headquarters for the film festival.

“There will be a Veterans film featured at the ReelAbilities festival, and we’ll also feature a Veterans panel to speak about disabled Veterans issues and the Games,” Graf-Jansen said. “All of the people working on ReelAbilities will transition to being volunteers for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.”

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

“Selfless” Describes 2016 Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

Navy Veteran Jeff DeLeon longs for the day when extraordinary becomes the new normal.

A glimpse of that extraordinary is something DeLeon witnesses each year as he competes alongside his fellow disabled Veterans at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). But as the 36th NVWG closed on Sat., July 1, in Salt Lake City, DeLeon’s own brand of extraordinary will be on display as he accepts the 2016 Spirit of the Games award.

“If everyone did what they were capable of, it wouldn’t be seen as amazing; it’d just be normal,” DeLeon says. “My hope is to inspire more people to take those extra steps to do the things they never thought possible.”

For DeLeon, things he never thought possible were opened at his first NVWG year in 2009, and in the true Spirit of the Games, DeLeon has been paying his novice year forward ever since. In 2013, after serving as President of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Oregon Chapter, DeLeon stood up Veterans for Mobility-Impaired America (VMIA), which empowers Veterans to serve their communities by helping non-Veterans with disabilities who do not have the same access to adaptive sports and equipment.

“Part of the rehabilitation process is making a difference in someone else’s life,” he says. “And by doing that, we’re going to make the world a better place.”

DeLeon traces his own journey back to the recreational therapists, coaches, friends and family members who made a difference in his life after a car accident in 1999 left him a T-6 paraplegic.

“Jeff has overcome a lot in his life personally and has used adaptive sports and recreation as a tool to rediscover himself,” said VA recreational therapist Carrie Booker. “He’s selfless; he’s always welcoming others with open arms.”

For Booker, DeLeon is a Veteran she can always rely on to go the extra mile – literally. DeLeon is known for driving hundreds of miles to meet a newly injured Veteran to encourage, coach and share equipment, she says, and he brings the same spirit each year to the NVWG, where he is known by his fellow athletes as humble, supportive and fiercely competitive. DeLeon now boasts more than 40 medals from the Games, including 37 gold.

At the 36th Games, one of DeLeon’s standout moments was a 10-run rally in the 7th inning with his softball team facing two outs. It was DeLeon’s three-run home run that led his team to an unlikely victory.

“I watched his spirit lead his softball team in one of the most historic comebacks in Games history,” said Bob Crowe, softball official for the NVWG, who nominated DeLeon for the award. “Jeff is a tireless, selfless individual who embodies what all athletes should strive for: excellence on and off the athletic field.”

DeLeon’s natural athletic ability and hard work are what have earned him participation with U.S. Paralympics throwing javelin and discus, and helped him train tirelessly for his ultimate goal of becoming a Paralympian in air pistols or archery for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But even with the Paralympics on his radar, the Navy Veteran will abruptly stop thinking about his own goals to help a fellow disabled Veteran discover their own.

“I’ll do whatever it is someone wants to do, whether hunting, fishing, tennis, even crocheting,” he says. “It’s all about building relationships, getting out there and giving up the excuses as to why you can’t do something.”

It’s that spirit that DeLeon brings to the novices at the NVWG – and makes him more than worthy of the Spirit of the Games award, Booker said.

“Jeff always makes sure the novices on his team get more than their minimal playing time,” Booker said. “He has this tremendous positive attitude, and he’s sort of everywhere; it’s like there’s 10 of him running around. He’s always making other people’s experiences memorable.”

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Kids Day Opens Adaptive Sports to Children with Disabilities

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Sixteen children with disabilities gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center Thursday to be mentored by Veterans whose lives speak to the life-changing power of adaptive sports.

Kids Day – held as part of the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City – is now in its 16th year. After being led in warm-up exercises, kids with varying types and levels of disability were cheered through the slalom – a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes – t-ball and basketball.

“One of the things that happens at these types of events is people always talk about how Veterans inspire them, well, we get inspiration, too, when we see kids who are dealing with circumstances probably far greater than being disabled by the military because for them, it’s life-long,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “A lot of these kids are very sharp; they’ve been problem-solving for a long time. And if they take that into adulthood and into their career, they can do anything.”

For many children and parents, Kids Day was their first experience being around a large group of individuals in wheelchairs, let alone trying adaptive sports. The hope is that all young participants will return home equipped with enough knowledge and resources to pursue adaptive activities in their communities.

“It is amazing, truly amazing; this is the funnest thing he has done,” said Roger, father to Jacob. “You should have seen him out there, he had a blast going over all the jumps and doing all the obstacles. He had a blast.”

“It was awesome,” Jacob added.

Army Veteran Shaun Castle, now in his second year as a Kids Day mentor, said the experience naturally moved more personal in Salt Lake City, to the point where he was not only encouraging the children but motivating them to pursue activities beyond the one-hour NVWG event.

“Wheelchair basketball has taken me around the world to things I never dreamed, and it all started with trying wheelchair sports,” Castle said. “This year involved a deeper connection with the kids who may not have found that yet. Rather than just showing them how to shoot a basketball, I was able to speak to them about how it can change their life – that this moment could be one that changes their life forever.”

Kids Day is about more than giving disabled children an opportunity to see what’s possible; it’s also about inspiring Veteran athletes to take what they see and learn at the event and pay it forward in their own communities. Many Veterans tout Kids Day as their favorite event at the Games, evidenced by its popularity and long wait lists to fill around XX mentorship spots each year.

“These athletes, whether they’re novices or experts, have all been in much the same position as these kids, even though their injuries did not come until adulthood,” said Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, who returned to his iconic role as emcee for the Kids Day event. “The Veterans know how these kids feel and how the parents feel, and to relay what they have learned to both the child and the parents, I’m pretty sure that is even better than receiving a gold medal.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Disappointments May Mean Success for Navy Veteran Sharona Young at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

For Navy Veteran Sharona Young, “the best successes often come after the greatest disappointments.”

Young always believed that sentiment but never realized how true it would eventually become for her own life. In 2012, while assigned to the U.S. Africa Command in Molesworth, England, she noticed an escalation of symptoms she’d had for years, namely severe pain in her left foot and leg as well as extreme fatigue and weakness. After exhausting every possible route for diagnosis, doctors discovered through imaging tests lesions on her brain, spinal cord and optic nerve consistent with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

At the time, all Young could think about was her then-six-year-old daughter, Taylor, at home with her family in Minneapolis while Young completed her tour overseas.

“I came home and was completely different,” Young says. “My daughter didn’t understand why her mom was in a wheelchair, and the greatest challenge was explaining to her that I could no longer just get up and do the things we used to do.”

Still, Young’s greatest challenge also became her greatest motivator. She medically retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 2014, and, armed with passion to maintain some sense of normalcy as a single mom to Taylor, she started searching for activities she could do from her wheelchair. While never particularly interested in athletics, Young wondered if sports might be the most natural fit.

“I played badminton in high school, but I’ve never been very athletic,” she says. “I don’t even like watching sports, so my sister and friends found it odd when I started taking an interest in them.”

Young moved to Orlando, Fla., and – hoping to bond with her daughter and cope with the daily stresses of her complex, unpredictable disease – started pursuing adaptive sports, namely cycling. She was instantly hooked and became determined to try anything she could. Participation in the VA’s Summer and Winter Sports Clinics opened even more doors – to archery, kayaking, skiing and snowmobiling, to name a few.

A trip to the 2014 Warrior Games followed, paving the way for Young’s participation in her first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City. She’ll compete in cycling, nine-ball, boccia, table tennis, bowling and bobsledding at the 36th annual NVWG.

“I’m really looking forward to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games because I’m always looking for new things to keep me active, that I can play with my daughter,” she says. “We ride our bikes together often, but I would love finding an actual sport we could play together.”

Sports aside, what Young says she loves most about events like the NVWG is the opportunity to connect with Veterans to learn how they cope with everyday stresses associated with disability – from self-care to parenting to socializing with friends.

“There’s just something about being around other Veterans, regardless of whether they’re injured or sick,” she says. “The fact that they are a Veteran means they can relate to you on a level that someone who hasn’t been in the military can’t. That camaraderie and unspoken bond cannot be found anywhere else.”

It’s that bond that draws Young to a variety of volunteer work, including with Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Central Florida Chapter as well as a Community Living Center run by the VA. She also is active in the PTA at her daughter’s school and volunteers at her local food bank from time to time.

Young credits much of her activity in sports and community to her sister, Nakesha, who moved to Orlando to be her caregiver. “I’m so grateful to have my sister here with me,” she says.

With much success past, present and future, Young sees clearly now that so much of that success can be traced back to the initial disappointment of an MS diagnosis. That is what carries her through the rough days – and ultimately will carry her through the competition at the NVWG.

“No one wants to find out they have an incurable disease,” she says. “Even though it was something I didn’t want to hear or accept, it’s opened up so many doors; I’m learning so many new things and meeting so many great new people. In so many ways, success started with that initial disappointment.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano to Compete in First National Veterans Wheelchair Games

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

For paralyzed Army Sergeant First Class Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano, it was the faces of his three children that pulled him out of his darkest moments of loss and depression – just enough to discover that dreams, goals and ultimately hope might be regained on the surface of a rugby court.

“Depression and anxiety are a whole different kind of evil, and if I’d had the hand function for it, I probably would have taken myself out,” Sua says. “But what pulled me out was the fact that my kids were still young; I didn’t know what their future would be like without me around.”

Born in America Samoa, Sua at age six moved with his family to Kalihi, Hawaii. In June 1997, three weeks after graduating from high school, the rugged, natural-born leader enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he flourished as a paratrooper, jumpmaster and special operations soldier, serving multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in 2007, Sua was serving with the then-newly formed 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) in Southern Afghanistan when enemy fire struck. Sua, wearing roughly 100 pounds of military gear, jumped to the M240B swivel machine gun at the back of the truck, but as the driver took an abrupt turn, Sua was thrown to his back on the ground.

“I heard the snap like a hollow break of dry wood within, inside my ears,” Sua says. “But I was still fighting the war. So many of our supply channels and driving routes had been compromised. We were already short-manned, and often the only reason to send a chopper was for body bags or very severe injuries. I wasn’t about to chance it not knowing what it was. I didn’t see it as a problem, so I kept going.”

For months, Sua endured pain in the back of his neck so severe it “felt like one large needle piercing through it.” Still, he found it in himself to push through the deployment, until one morning in Aug. 2007, when he fell out of bed, his neck hitting the small table at his bedside.

“What happened was my upper half went to get out of bed, and the lower half wouldn’t go with me,” he says. “After my buddies helped me back into bed and I laid there for a few hours, I realized I couldn’t move anything from my waist down.”

Sua was medevaced to Bagram Air Base in Northern Afghanistan, and later to Germany to undergo surgery. After completing months-long rehabilitation at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, he returned home to Ft. Bragg, N.C. In need of more help and assistance from family, he, his wife, Shannon, and their three children moved to Hawaii, to a home that was not modified to meet his needs.

Sua refused to give up. He remained in the Army, first working at Special Operations Command Pacific and later as a counselor helping injured Veterans. But depression set in, and only compounded severely when a 2009 newspaper article left out critical facts about Sua’s combat service and injury.

“It wasn’t the story I told, and I didn’t want to show my face or be anywhere,” he says. “As much as I wanted to stay on active duty, I had all of these people calling me trying to help me out, and I had to set them straight with the story. I felt like I had betrayed my unit, as if I was perceived as having told a different storyline. It only pushed me further into depression.”

For the next six years, Sua determined to stay out of the public eye – and ultimately out of public altogether. With a cervical spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic, he believed any chance to get out of the house was too heavy a burden on those he would require for help.

That was until the U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Care Coalition stepped in, encouraging Sua to fly to Tampa to participate in its adaptive sports program. It was there that he tried quad rugby for the first time, and suddenly, a new way of life began to open before him.

“Sports have been a complete game-changer for me in terms of living life with this injury,” Sua says. “Sports have given me a sense of purpose, the means to stay fit and goals to keep getting better. Even more, sports have opened up the opportunity for me to be around other veterans with similar injuries. It’s there that we share experiences and passions and discover what else can be done.”

Sua and his family have since moved to Tampa, where he is now a valued member of the Tampa Generals quad rugby team. The retired Sergeant First Class also has competed in rugby, wheelchair racing, shot put and discus at the Warrior Games, Invictus Games and Dixie Games.

On June 27, 2016, Sua will roll into his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) with the same relentless passion and competitive spirit as he competes in quad rugby, discus, club, weightlifting and slalom. Beyond that, he’s eager to learn and encourage alongside his fellow disabled veterans – whether injured in combat or not.

“I was injured in combat, but veterans shouldn’t feel like they had to be in order to play adaptive sports; we don’t owe one person more than another,” he says. “An injury comes with side blinders, which will bring you back into depression if you let it. It requires constant repetition, reminding yourself that there’s hope.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Toyota Sponsors National Veterans Wheelchair Games for 17th Consecutive Year

Adults and children signing the Toyota Wall of Inspiration at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Adults and children signing the Toyota Wall of Inspiration at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Aside from seeing Toyota’s signature-wrapped vehicles bearing the National Veterans Wheelchair Games logo at the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City, Veteran athlete participants might also notice a local and national commitment by the car company to programs that support Veterans’ health, mobility and well-being.

The 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – which take place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – will again welcome Toyota as a national host sponsor, which includes support for the Games as well as sponsorship of the “Wall of Appreciation,” where Veteran athletes, family members and volunteers are invited to handwrite their messages of thanks and support.

“We are totally committed to our Veterans – the great men and women who have served our country,” said Mark Oldenburg, national fleet marketing, mobility and strategic planning manager for Toyota USA. ““We’ve had a relationship with Paralyzed Veterans of America going back to 1999, and each year, we try to do even more.”

Toyota also will provide a fleet of 12 loaner vehicles for official staff to drive as they commute to various event venues. Each vehicle will be wrapped with colorful graphics inspired by the NVWG logo.

Toyota also will present Paralyzed Veterans of America with a wheelchair accessible Toyota Sienna featuring a graphic treatment honoring disabled Veterans for use in their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

As in past years, Veterans can view and tour one of Toyota Mobility’s wheelchair accessible vehicles at the Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo, taking place Sunday, June 27, and featuring more than 100 sports and recreation organizations and companies that provide health, wellness and accessibility products. A unique display of wheelchair accessible Toyota Sienna vans also will be featured adjacent to the competition area throughout the week.

“Toyota has a strong core message of mobility for all, and that includes those with disabilities,” Oldenburg said. “Our Veterans are a core part of that strategy, and we want to do as much as we can to serve them.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Sports Clinics Open New Opportunities to 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athletes

Veterans gathered at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games Clinics

Veterans gathered at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games at one of the four sports clinics offered June 21, 2015. Photo by Brittany Ballenstedt.

More than 50 novice and experienced wheelchair athletes gathered at the opening of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas for one of four sports clinics.

Each year, the collection of sports clinics keep with the spirit of the Games in empowering veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation. This year’s sports clinics enabled wheelchair athletes to try one of four new sports – table tennis, quad rugby, power soccer and basketball.

For Bryan Anderson, an Army veteran and triple amputee, coming to his first Games as an exhibitor gave him the perfect chance to try quad rugby – a sport that has long garnered his attention since he was injured 10 years ago. The clinic – which featured 11 novice and seasoned athletes – had him hooked, he said.

“There’s so much strategy involved; I thought everyone just got out there and smashed each other,” Anderson said. “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t hadn’t time to commit to a team, so doing something like this that’s impromptu is great. I think it’s something I’ll pursue more.”

Veterans also were given an opportunity to try table tennis and learn from an expert about technique and equipment. Ken Johnson, an Air Force veteran and amputee, tried tabled tennis at the 33rd Games in Tampa, and this year has come back to compete in the official Games table tennis events.

“This is the first year I’ve been in the open competition for table tennis,” Johnson said. “I have a machine at home that helps me practice, so I’m looking forward to see if and how that’s going to help me in the competition this year.”

More than 20 veterans also participated in this year’s clinic for power soccer, which is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Power soccer, which is played in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court, features teams of four players who attack, defend and spin-kick a 13-inch soccer ball in a challenging game similar to traditional able-bodied soccer.

“Because the game is two-dimensional, we try to create some artificial space on the field,” said Chris Mulholland of the US Power Soccer Association. “We try to make the rules as much like the outdoor game as possible with a couple exceptions – and those exceptions are the two big things we tried to get clinic participants to understand.”

Finally, roughly 10 wheelchair athletes gathered to learn tips and techniques from experts in wheelchair basketball – one of the oldest and most popular wheelchair sports. Leroy Barnett, a paralyzed Army veteran, said he had been playing basketball his entire life up until his injury and was thrilled to learn new information for continuing his beloved pastime.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was a kid, and once you know the fundamentals, it doesn’t matter if you’re standing or in a chair, you just get your arms moving,” Barnett said. “This is going to be something I’m going to pursue as long as I can. As long as I can move my body, I’m going to do it.”

The NVWG are co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Retired Army Golden Knight and Double Amputee Dana Bowman to Parachute into 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Veteran Dana Bowman skydives in Ft Sill, Oklahoma

Army Veteran Dana Bowman sky dives in Ft Sill, OK.

When Army Sergeant First Class Dana Bowman lost both of his legs in a parachuting accident in 1994, the retired Special Operations soldier and member of the Army’s elite parachute team, the Golden Knights, refused to accept his new label of “disabled,” and set out to prove what he was still able to do.

On Monday, June 22, 2015, Bowman will parachute into the track and field event at the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games to the applause of more than 600 veteran wheelchair athletes also determined to prove Bowman’s long-held motto – “It’s not the disability; it’s the ability.”

“There was doubt in people’s minds about what a person with disabilities could do, but I never considered myself disabled at all,” says Bowman, who has performed more than 4,000 jumps over the course his lifetime.

As a double amputee, doctors assured Bowman he would live the rest of his life differently and that the things he once enjoyed to do – water skiing, snow skiing, scuba diving and flying airplanes and helicopters – he would never do again.

But Bowman refused to accept that the doctor’s grim prognosis. While the average double amputee takes up to several weeks to stop using crutches and canes to walk, Bowman was walking independently in just three days. He immediately began helping doctors design special prostheses that would enable him to return to his active life as he had known it.

And he did. Just five months after the accident, Bowman left Walter Reed Army Medical Center to skydive as part of a Golden Knights wedding ceremony, and a few months after that, he became the first double amputee to reenlist in the Army. Not only that, he reentered his service by skydiving with his commander into the ceremony.

“There are a lot of veterans who have overcome tragedies whether in the line of duty or not, whether they’re blind, quadriplegic, paraplegic or have another disability,” Bowman says. “I’m just part of the team.”

Bowman retired from the Army after 20 years of service, performing his final jump as a Golden Knight into the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. His many awards and honors include a bronze star for valor in 1989 during the conflict in Panama as well as Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year in 1995.

Further still, Bowman’s decades-long commitment to service continued after his military retirement. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in commercial aviation at the University of North Dakota in 2000 and resolved to spend the rest of his life serving his fellow disabled veterans – on the ground and in the air.

“I don’t have any legs, but I can fly multi-million dollar helicopters,” says Bowman, who remains the only double amputee instructor pilot in the world. “I can do anything I want to do, and I want to encourage veterans, kids and anybody to imagine what they can do.”

Aside from visiting his fellow amputees and other disabled veterans at military and VA hospitals, Bowman in 2007 hosted the first Wounded Warrior Hog Hunt for 10 wounded warriors and 70 volunteers. Following the success of that event, Bowman resolved to do more, and in 2012 stood up the HALO for Freedom Warrior Foundation, which encourages the physically challenged to excel in today’s society and military.

In 2015, Bowman and the HALO Foundation team stood up HALO for Freedom Realty, which offers 10 percent of the commission for each home sold to the HALO Foundation. It also helps veterans who would like to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to obtain a real estate license and work on the HALO Realty team.

“With HALO Realty, we’re going to be able to raise more money to help veterans, and we’re always looking for more veterans to come aboard to be an agent,” he says.

Above all, Bowman hopes to continue his lifetime of service by inspiring veterans and all with disabilities to live their best lives. Through his motivational speeches, inspirational jumps and spirit of giving back, Bowman is showing that even in the face of disability, he – and all people with disabilities – are anything but useless.

“It takes time to heal, but times are changing for the better,” Bowman says. “Each and every one of our warriors who are injured left, right, front or center all have an incredible story to tell. Whether they were injured in the line of duty or not, we’re all one big team and all believe it’s about the ability, not the disability.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Kids Take Center Stage at the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Philadelphia

Two veteran mentors and a child with disabilities at the 2014 NVWG Kids DayAs part of each National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), one morning is set aside as Kids Day, when local kids with disabilities can show up to be mentored in sports by NVWG athletes and have some fun with other children in a similar situation to their own. This year 14 kids participated in the event.

At the 2014 Games in Philadelphia, Dr. Ken Lee, who acts as the medical director for the NVWG, once again rocked the mic as emcee of the Friday event. Having dressed in the past as Mr. Incredible, Batman, Fred Flintstone, and a pirate, this year Lee was a “safari man,” complete with stuffed animals attached to him.

“I become a kid again,” Lee said of his participation in the event. “Well, more of a kid, maybe.” And Lee said that’s the point: To scream and yell and laugh a lot. He added that he loves to see parents and kids who came into the event quite tentative to leave with huge smiles on their faces.

Renee Chenault-Fattah joined Lee to emcee the 2014 Kids Day. Chenault-Fattah joined Philadelphia’s NBC10 in 1991 and anchors the news there weekdays at 4 and 6 p.m. Chenault-Fattah said she was honored to be part of the event. “I love kids,” said the mother of four, “and I care deeply about our veterans. So I definitely wanted to be part of an event combining the two.”

One of the participants this year was Jaden Brown, 13, who immediately started draining shots when he got on the basketball court. His mom, Jennifer Stitt, said that Jaden normally isn’t in a chair but instead uses a prosthetic leg, so this was a new experience for him. Brown was born with an underdeveloped leg, which had to be amputated when he was 3. He was fitted with a prosthetic and was walking soon thereafter.

Jaden, who is in a basketball league this summer, confirmed that basketball was his favorite sport. He plays shooting guard and occasionally point guard. He enjoyed softball, too, as he explained how far he drove a ball off the tee.

Maddie Jones showed real athletic skills, too. The 14-year-old with cerebral palsy said she plays wheelchair basketball and also skis, rows and has started karate. Her mom, Meg Jones, said Maddie was excited to check out Kids Day and the Games in general. She added that Maddie loved talking to the veterans, too, and hearing their stories.

The younger Jones said she wants to play sports through high school and would love to one day get a college scholarship to play sports. Always looking at new opportunities, she said she enjoyed slalom, a course of challenging obstacles for wheelchairs, because she didn’t know it existed. She also said she loved meeting some Paralympians while at the Games.

Shafiq Simpson, 8, said he enjoyed softball. His favorite part of the day was hitting homeruns. He did have one complaint: in his opinion, the day should have also featured table tennis.

Simpson’s mom, Sharmaine, said that they heard about the Games from Shafiq’s physical therapist. “This gives him a chance to participate with other kids,” Sharmaine said. “It shows him that he’s no different from other kids. It will get him more motivated. When he goes back home he cans say, ‘I played baseball. I played basketball.’”

Kids Day isn’t just for the kids, though. Former Marine and current NVWG athlete Joey Avellone said he looks forward to this morning of the Games each year. He said he was asked to be a mentor for Kids Day at the first Games he attended, which was in 2003. “I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “I always look ahead at the schedule to make sure I don’t have a conflict.”

Avellone, who helped lead the kids in the Pledge of Allegiance, said he was surprised at the number and determination of real young kids this year. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They were getting through that slalom better than I could.”

Former Marine and current NVWG athlete Tai Cleveland also said that he loves Kids Day. This year was his fourth year to participate. Cleveland said he loves the chance to be a mentor and to encourage the kids.

Dr. Ken Lee said the event is a win-win. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to be with others who are like them and learn about adaptive sports and it’s a great opportunity for the veterans to be mentors,” he said. “It takes the veterans away from who they are in everyday life and really shows who they are as a person. It brings out the best in them.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Tim W. Jackson is a writer and editor in Weaverville, N.C.