By Kim Hytinen and Andy RubenAugust 6, 2008
Tyler Wilson, a 23-year-old Army veteran, has experienced his second life-changing event within three years. The first: three gunshot wounds that rendered him paralyzed from the waist down while under enemy fire in Afghanistan; the second: five days with 500 other wheelchair athletes, all veterans like himself, competing and mentoring at the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
A first-time competitor, Wilson traveled with his parents from his home in Thornton, Colo., to the annual Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb., July 25-29.
Scott Wilson knew his son would be satisfied only by rediscovering activities that would keep him active and engaged. That's why he and his wife were thrilled when their son registered for the 2008 Games.
"Competing in the Wheelchair Games sounded like fun," said Wilson. "Through this event, I was able to enjoy the things I did before my injury and learn from other disabled veterans."
Upon registering for the Wheelchair Games, Wilson knew he was in for a week of sports and camaraderie, but something unexpected happened. Something, according to Wilson, that can only be described as "paying it forward."
Newly injured veterans who attend the Games for the first time are often overwhelmed by the sights and feelings they experience at the event, and are amazed at how the returning athletes take the novices under their wings, teaching and mentoring them on and off the field.
"An amazing transformation occurs to people at this event," said Joanna Wilson, Tyler's mom. "The athletes' spirits blossom and the kindness and generosity of the community become clear and evident. The Games are an extraordinary example of what is happening in this country for injured servicemen that is right and good."
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are an outgrowth of the historic involvement of the Department of Veterans Affairs in wheelchair sports. The Games, which are co-presented by VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America, offer opportunities, to both newly injured veterans as well as those who have had disabilities for many years, to gain sports skills and be exposed to other wheelchair athletes. Typically, a quarter of the competitors have never before participated in any type of organized wheelchair sports competition.
Wilson competed in air guns, archery, bowling, trapshooting and nine-ball at the Wheelchair Games in July, and took home a gold, a silver, and two bronze medals. With his first Games behind him, he plans now to utilize the mentoring he received by his fellow veterans-to recycle it by paying forward the gift of encouragement that continues to be an integral part of his rehabilitation.
Popular military mottos pass through Wilson's lips when he thinks about his future role at the next National Veterans Wheelchair Games. "If you're going through hell, keep going. No one is left behind. If you're down, others will pick you up. Adapt, improvise, overcome." For his next dose of rehabilitation and sports, and to share his newfound mentoring skills, Wilson will need to travel to Spokane, Wash., the host city for the 2009 Wheelchair Games next July.
(Kim Hytinen works as public affairs support for VA National Events in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Andy Ruben is the PAO for the Cheyenne, Wyo. Veterans Affairs Medical Center.)