Vietnam, Army vet coaching today's wounded warriors
May 11, 2013
By David Vergun
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Army News Service, May 11, 2013) -- An Army Vietnam veteran is coaching wheelchair basketball at the Warrior Games this week, but his duties extend way beyond the sport.
Billy Demby said he's also coaching today's wounded warriors on how to get through the difficult process of healing from their wounds, illnesses and injuries suffered on and off the battlefield.
"I know what they're feeling. I know what they're going through," he said. "It could be something as small as dealing with family members or something as large as having flashbacks."
And Demby knows all too well. He's been through it himself.
In 1971, near Quang Tri, South Vietnam, a Vietcong rocket destroyed the truck he was driving.
The 20-year-old private was lucky to survive, doctors told him after amputating both of his legs.
But the physical injuries he sustained were just half of his battle. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, though he didn't know it at the time.
"No one told me I might have PTSD. We were still calling it shell shock," a term carried over from World Wars I and II, he explained. "Others called those of us with PTSD the 'walking wounded.'
"A lot of us had it," he continued. "You witnessed the trauma of war, seeing bodies blown apart. It has an effect on you. It plays in your head."
The military was still struggling then with how to correctly amputate limbs without killing the patients and providing functional prosthetics, he said. "They didn't know how to deal with PTSD or even what it was. It just wasn't a priority."
Society didn't know how to deal with the veterans either, he said.
"The war was long, and it was unpopular," he said. "People were getting tired of their kids, their husbands, their uncles, their cousins being killed and maimed."
And, they took it out on the veterans, he added.
"When we came back, they spit on us as we were walking through the airport. Now, whenever I go through an airport, I hear people saying 'thank you for your service,'" he said, describing the attitude shift.
Today's veterans are also getting better help from the military, Veterans Affairs and numerous charities and nonprofits, he said.
The Warrior Games is one of those organizations, providing a venue at the Olympic Training Center and Air Force Academy for wounded, ill and injured veterans and service members. The events are shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, archery, cycling and track and field.
"Sports are helping them take the next step, which is transitioning back to society," he said. "When we put veterans in these types of programs, they see they can accomplish something. It sets them up for the next thing. It's like, if I can do this, I can do something else."
Demby has been coaching wheelchair basketball at the Warrior Games since its inception in 2010.
He's already achieved celebrity status, having competed in wheelchair basketball in the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
When he's not coaching Warrior Games athletes, he's coaching wheelchair basketball at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Walking around the court has gotten easier as the years have gone by due to advances in technology, with new models of prosthetics coming out almost every year, he said.
"What they have today is way beyond what I initially received," he said, describing his first legs as "hard rubber," lacking control and flexibility.
Over the years, he got new legs, ones made out of Delrin, which he described as much more flexible, even allowing amputees to run and play basketball. The old ones, he said, were barely good enough to walk with.
Now, he has a pair made out of carbon fiber. He said he lost track of how many legs he's had over the years.
As far as future plans go, he said he'd like to remain with the Warrior Games as a coach. "I'll work with these guys until they get tired of me."
He added, "For me, it's about giving something back."
He expressed admiration for the young athletes, whom he describes as the next greatest generation.
"It's what these guys do that allow you to live in a free country. There's a cost to that freedom and these guys are making that payment," he said.