By Thomas Brading, Army News ServiceNovember 25, 2019
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- For the first time, U.S. athletes came together last week for a training camp prior to the 2020 Invictus Games.
Among the athletes vying for gold are six Soldiers, including one active-duty platoon sergeant.
The team will set out for the biennial event in May at The Hague, a city on the North Sea coast of western Netherlands -- 75 years after its liberation during World War II.
The battle-scarred city "understands post-war rebuilding and rehabilitation," Sir Keith Mills, Invictus Games Foundation chairman, saidin a statement. He compared the city's rehabilitation to that of the adaptive sports athletes it will be hosting.
RESILIENCY THROUGH ADAPTIVE SPORTS
"Adaptive sports saved my life," said Sgt. 1st Class Earl Ohlinger, Warrior Transition Battalion platoon sergeant. "About two or three years ago before my first Warrior Games, I was in a really dark place with my [post-traumatic stress] and injuries."
A lower back injury while on a mission in Afghanistan changed everything, he said. During his recovery, Ohlinger slipped into depression, especially after he left the infantry with an uncertain future at the transition battalion.
But it's at the WTB where he found solace as a platoon sergeant. There, he helps wounded Soldiers focus on their healing before transitioning back to Army or civilian status.
"I'm grateful for the Army, they've allowed me to continue serving based on my injury," Ohlinger said. "I still contribute to the Army, contribute to Soldiers, while at the same time, I get to help myself to get better."
One way he's helped himself is through adaptive sports. They have "completely changed my life," he said. Today, the lifelong basketball player is excited to soon wear the colors of the United States on the world stage during the upcoming 2020 Invictus Games.
ROAD TO 2020 INVICTUS GAMES
Ohlinger and 27 other wounded warriors came together to prepare for team sports such as wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, and wheelchair rugby. It was the first time the USA team all trained under the same roof prior to the event.
At the games, they will take on more than 400 other competitors from 18 different nations in a series of adaptive sports showdowns.
However, the games are not all about wins and losses, said retired Capt. Tim Bomke, a former armor officer. They are intended to uplift wounded warriors, like himself, on their road to recovery.
Bomke began his journey in June 2005 after he led a route clearance mission in northern Iraq. His vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The IED blast claimed his right leg below the knee, and afterward he also endured treatment for PTSD and a traumatic brain injury.
"If you think about the whole concept of the Soldier for life model, the Invictus games are similar," he said. "They're here for those who were wounded, injured, or ill. A lot of therapy and healing takes place through adaptive sports. The whole lifecycle model of being a Soldier -- this is part of it."
Previously a two-time Team Army veteran at the DOD Warrior Games, Bomke will compete in multiple events for Team USA.
Bomke looks forward to the challenge in them all, but for many different reasons. For example, during swimming events, he doesn't wear his prosthetic leg in the water. It's a feeling that "is as close to being whole again as I can be," he said.
"I'm very proud to be a Soldier for life and represent the Army," Bomke added, ahead of his first Invictus Games. "I get to represent my country this time, so the stakes are even bigger and it's awesome."
BUILDING STRONG TEAMS
The training camp also served as an opportunity to "build comradery and share laughs," said retired Spc. Brent Garlic, wheelchair basketball point guard and a former armor crewman.
"It's been amazing," he said. "We've done a lot of learning, a lot of information was passed around, and a lot of good relationships formed."
Although last week may have been the only chance for the USA athletes to train together, their training schedule won't slow down anytime soon, said former Staff Sgt. Shawn Runnells, also a former armor crewman, who added, "The best of me comes out when playing team sports."
For retired Staff Sgt. Joel Rodriguez, a former air traffic controller and quadriplegic rugby competitor, the biggest message he has for wounded warriors is "there is life after injury."
"No matter what it is, whether it's PTSD or a physical injury that lands you into a wheelchair," said Rodriguez, a multiple DOD Warrior Games gold medalist. "Just reach out to your local [Warrior Transition Unit] and ask them for help, and hopefully they get you in the right direction and get you involved in adaptive sports."
For more information on how to get involved in the Army's Warrior Care and Transition program, visit www.wct.army.mil