Sport is Secondary for First-Time National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek (center) on the podium after accepting his gold medal at the Warrior Games.

For active Army Colonel Danny Dudek, sports are secondary to service.

That’s the mentality he will bring to the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City, where he will compete in his first-ever NVWG with not so much something to prove, but rather, something to learn.

“Sports are secondary to me,” Dudek says. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been on my radar because I want to meet the broader community of veterans in wheelchairs and learn about their life and challenges after the military.”

Dudek understands firsthand the challenges of remaining on active duty with a disability. In 2007, the then-Army Major was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq. In addition to losing his friend and comrade Cpl. Brandon Craig in the blast, Dudek had to face his own life-changing spinal cord injury that left him with little mobility in his legs.

“You have to mourn,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept being an SCI patient who couldn’t use his legs anymore. But then I determined for myself that I would put big goals in front of me and find out if they’re impossible. The thing is, I haven’t found anything impossible yet.”

For Dudek, the first hurdle was remaining on active duty. But by 2009, he was selected as commander of the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he pioneered policy to help injured service members like himself who needed the tools to either remain on active duty or transition into a successful life as a Veteran of the U.S. military. It was in his leadership role that he discovered the value of sports to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.

By 2012, Dudek moved to the Pentagon to serve as deputy chief of staff at the Army’s Warrior Transition Command. While physically active, Dudek wanted the firsthand experience of what he knew his fellow soldiers and Veterans were relying on to rehabilitate. Just months later, he was off to his first Warrior Games, where he earned one gold and one silver medal in swimming.

“The more active I was, the more I realized things I thought were impossible really weren’t,” says Dudek, who now boasts five gold medals in swimming from two consecutive Warrior Games. “It proved that I could do anything.”

Dudek went on to race in the Marine Corps Marathon, Army Ten-Miler and the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon. He also learned to ski independently, and in 2014, competed in the inaugural Invictus Games in London.

“For all I’ve done in sports and in the military, the wheelchair quickly gets ignored,” he says. “The more you perform, the more you get to perform; the wheelchair isn’t even a factor.”

Having transitioned back to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington where he hopes to retire, the Army Colonel now serves as the collective training chief of the Army’s I Corps. He knows one day soon he’ll be the one transitioning out of the military into Veteran status, and it’s then that he’s set his sights on some big, personal goals.

“Ninety percent of the disabled community is not physically active, and I don’t believe it’s because of money or venues, it’s participation,” he says. “I want to create something incredible in the Northwest to help grow participation and competition in adaptive sports. The passion I have for adaptive sports has driven me to this, but of course, I have to retire first.”

The 36th NVWG will be a step on the path of the post-retirement goals Dudek has set for himself. It’s also a step to reclaim his personal physical activity lost over the past couple of years due to busy work schedules and other personal demands. At the NVWG, he’ll compete in swimming, track, cycling and triathlon.

“I want to get physically active again,” he says. “But for me, the Games are more about the community than the competition. I’m excited about the possibilities and the people I get to meet.”

Still, amidst much success in both career and sport, Dudek says it all comes back to the true love of his life: his wife, Megan, who was there before his injury and has been his constant every day after.

“All good things are because of my wife,” he says. “I’m able to do so much only because of her support.”

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.