By Sgt. Joseph A. MorrisNovember 6, 2006
NEW YORK (Army News Service, Nov. 6, 2006) Approximately 70 recently disabled war heroes completed the 2006 New York City Marathon Sunday.
The athletes were part of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded War Veterans, sponsored by the Achilles Track Club, a non-profit organization that gives disabled people the opportunity to compete in a variety of sporting events.
Sgt. Neil Duncan, a first-time marathon participant from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, finished in first place this year for the Freedom Team.
"I wasn't expecting to come in first," said Duncan, who lost both his legs from an improvised explosive device last year while serving in Iraq. "But once I got in the lead, I just stuck with it."
Duncan said he got involved with Achilles while going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as part of an athletic program for disabled war veterans. Their rehabilitation is enhanced through physical activity, goal setting and personal achievement.
"We try to catch them weeks after they have been wounded," said Mary Bryant, vice president and director of the Freedom Team. "We want them to get active again and encourage them to keep moving. We're here to complement what they're doing at Walter Reed."
The majority of the veterans are amputees who participate using specially designed hand-crank wheelchairs that are operated solely by competitors' upper body strength.
"They're actually very challenging to use," said Bryant. "Some of them are donated and built by volunteers. We had a double amputee who had a five percent chance of living and when we gave him a hand-crank wheelchair, he became mobile and had life in him again," she said.
"Being a part of Freedom Team and being in this marathon has been an awesome experience," said retired Cpl. Alex Leonard, who lost his right leg during a land mine explosion in Iraq last year. "I am fortunate that other people cared enough about me and kept me going like this. This was the second time I did this marathon, and I plan on doing it again."
According to Bryant, every single member of Freedom Team finished the race, which becomes an empowering achievement for them.
"You really need that extra push, that team spirit - physically, mentally, and emotionally," she said. "There are people who didn't think they could do this marathon when they had two legs. Now in their current situation, they want to do it. People call them heroes, but they simply say, 'I was doing my job.'"