National Veterans Wheelchair Games Give Athlete Judi Ruiz Platform for Positive Change in Chicago

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

It was 2003 when Marine Corps Veteran Judi Ruiz believed multiple sclerosis (MS) had claimed everything she had.

A native of Chicago, Ruiz served as a criminal investigator with the Army for six years, transitioning in 1980 to a position as a federal detective with the Defense Department and Air Force Reserves. In 1989, she shifted careers to become a regional sales manager for the state of California.

But in 2002, Ruiz began to experience symptoms that doctors believed were consistent with a stroke. Imaging tests, however, revealed that Ruiz’s symptoms — weakness, cognitive problems and loss of balance – were connected to multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I lost my ability to work; our family had to sell everything and move back to Chicago,” she says. “I’d gone from making six figures to being on disability and losing my health insurance. I felt like I’d lost everything, including myself.”

But it was the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Chicago that Ruiz credits for saving her life. She transferred her care to Hines, where she received her first wheelchair and was asked for the first time if she had any interest in trying adaptive sports.

“I didn’t know anything about sports,” Ruiz says. “I don’t like competition; I don’t like anything about it. So I said ‘no.’”

Yet Ruiz’s “no” fell flat the moment she realized adaptive sports could be an alternative to clinic therapy. “I went to an air rifle event at Hines the following week, and it was like I learned to fly,” she says. “It completely changed my life.”

The burst of confidence found in air rifles inspired Ruiz just months later to travel to Anchorage, Alaska for her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Now 10 years later, Ruiz has not missed a single NVWG since. She’s competed in events including archery, air rifles, bowling, discus, javelin, 200M racing, slalom and boccia, and has medaled in every event.

Still, for Ruiz, the Games have little to do with accolades. Instead, her goal each year is solely to remain healthy enough to attend. “When I get on that plane and touch down at the next Wheelchair Games location, I’ve already accomplished my goal,” she says. “Any awards beyond that are just a bonus.”

The Games also represent a time for cross-mentorship that Ruiz says is unmatched by any other event or experience. A fellow Veteran can be firing off tips as he fires his air rifle and vice versa, she says. As a recent surgery on her left hand will require competing in most events one-handed at the 36th Games, Ruiz says it’s that cross-mentorship that will make a difference. “I’m not worried because I know I’m likely to meet someone who has some good one-handed tips,” she says.

It’s those tips, as well as the mentorship, camaraderie and inspiration of the Games that Ruiz carries back home to Chicago each year as she volunteers as a mentor, peer counselor and coach at the Hines VAMC and in her local community. “I don’t just limit myself to Veteran events,” she says. “The goal of the Games and Veterans programs is to learn something and push yourself out in the community to help educate them on what you need and what you can do.”

Ruiz’s role in the community was especially evident in 2012, when she spoke up about the lack of accessibility at an archery range at one of Chicago’s parks. In turn, the city’s parks district used her recommendations to revamp the park’s accessibility, and in 2013, Ruiz was invited to cut the ribbon and raise the American flag at the park’s opening ceremony.

“When you get out into the community, you have no idea what’s waiting for you until you tell them what you need,” she says. “And the Hines VA has given me that voice.”

For Ruiz, her 11th consecutive NVWG offers another platform for her to use that voice to encourage her fellow Veterans and speak up for change. Cheering her on will be her partner and caregiver, Gladys, who endured with her through the early days of an MS diagnosis and has traveled with her to every NVWG event.

And with hindsight always being 20/20, Ruiz no longer believes MS took everything she had. Instead, she gained everything: not only the best health of her life but a positive purpose for herself. And if any other Veteran believes an injury means their life is over, Ruiz assures them that it’s only just beginning.

“The biggest accomplishment for me is being healthy enough to have to learned to focus on my abilities and not my disabilities,” she says. “I can do anything I want to do and pay that forward to someone else who is now in the place I was – while maybe not with the same symptoms or diagnosis – to come full circle and discover that in every negative there’s a positive. For me, I owe everything I am to the Hines VA Hospital.”

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 Bring National Veterans Wheelchair Games Novice Dan Alston “Back to Life”

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

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.”

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

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.