ARLINGTON, Va. — For two weeks at the Fort Hood, Texas Soldier Recovery Unit, eight warriors teamed up to tackle one of the biggest challenges they've encountered since arriving at the unit: the 2021 Army Trials.
At a time when the Trials were virtual due to the pandemic, the huge participation at Fort Hood was a boon, in that it allowed the athletes the chance to compete together as they took on sports that pushed them both physically and mentally.
Amy Summers, recreational therapist at the Fort Hood SRU, said the unit got everyone together when they could, with proper COVID safety precautions in place.
"For our archery event, we had everyone together in that one," she said. "They had to do their shooting one at a time, but they were all there."
For many events that had just one person, group participation wasn't possible — but because of the high number of participants, they had plenty of opportunities. And it was important to take advantage of that, Summers said.
"They need that other person there to drive them," she said. "That's hard when we have only one person — for example, we have one person who swims and doesn't have any competition. Normally, if it's at Fort Bliss [where the Trials are traditionally held], they have other people to compete against, so it's a little bit of a limitation."
Sgt. 1st Class Barry Brown, the lone swimmer in the group, still had plenty of other opportunities to compete with his fellow athletes thanks to the fact he participated in eight sports.
"I had someone to row against, and others were doing cycling," he said. "You get to talk to them and learn how they're doing and how [the Trials] helped them to adapt to their issues."
Brown was joined by fellow Fort Hood athletes Sgt. Charles James, Jr., Capt. Susan Patton, Sgt. 1st Class Lacey Burks, Staff Sgt. Jeffery Sykes, Spc. Evie Hernandez, Pfc. Edward Casteel and Spc. Zakeem Johnson.
Due to the uncertainty from COVID, training was difficult leading up to the event, and each athlete had a different experience, Summers said. The SRU got Soldiers involved in the process as soon as virtual coaching became available, but some weren’t able to start until shortly before the event.
Regardless of how much training they had, it was an essential experience for all of them that drove their desire to adapt and overcome their challenges far beyond the Trials, Summers said.
"When they actually get to compete in a sporting event like Army Trials, they get a drive that they forgot they had," she said. "It brings that back up — that sense of challenge, which sometimes gets lost when you're doing medical treatment. Those things are really super important to remind a Soldier that there is more beyond right now — there's more than just appointments and medboard."
Army Trials helps with both the physical and mental recovery, Summers added. From a physical standpoint, they're able to overcome limitations when they didn't think they could, and discover new adaptations to help them manage their injury or illness. On the mental side, they're able to focus on the positive rather than become wrapped up in the negative, and they're also able to develop a camaraderie with their fellow Soldiers.
These skills will serve them long after they leave the SRU, she said.
"As they walk out the door and try to do other things, they remember that breathing technique they learned when they did archery, which can help them when they apply for a job or do something else that stresses them out," she said.
Sgt. 1st Class Brown agreed, noting that after he had a hip replacement and got two artificial disks put in his back, the physical and mental challenges seemed intertwined.
"Anytime I have issues with my physical side, it messes with my mental," he said. "So being able to do something to continue pushing forward has helped a lot with me mentally dealing with what's going on in my body."
This was Brown's first Army Trials — he was supposed to participate last year, but the event was cancelled because of the pandemic. It may be over for this year, but it's made him realize just how much he's capable of.
"I would definitely do it again," he said.