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.

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.