By Rob McIlvaineMarch 29, 2012
FORT MEADE, Md. (Army News Service, March 29, 2012) -- Staff Sgt. Stefanie Mason, who is on the list released today of Army athletes who qualified for the Warrior Games, was riding in an up-armored SUV in Kabul, Afghanistan, when the driver decided to go faster.
Losing control, they smashed headlong into a concrete wall and the seatbelts weren't working.
"I slipped forward and shattered the up-armored windshield and lost consciousness right there. I don't even remember what happened," said Mason, who is now serving with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command.
A reservist working for the International Joint Command Headquarters since October 2009, Mason joined the Army in March of 2003 and had enjoyed work during deployments to Iraq, to Kuwait at Camp Virginia, but really loved the work with members from 48 countries at the joint command in Afghanistan.
"It was a great experience. I loved it and it was like I had found a home," she said.
Until the day of the accident, April 20, 2010.
The doctors at the joint command had to induce her into a coma because her brain was swelling.
"I had a hematoma, and they were actually thinking about cutting my skull open to relieve the pressure because they didn't think I was going to survive the [next] 24 hours. But the medication they were giving me made me survive. I was very fortunate. To this day, the doctors don't know how I survived," Mason said.
Besides the brain injury, critically injured Mason sustained a moderate, traumatic brain injury, nine facial fractures, a tibia plateau fracture, and a degenerated disc in the back.
"I was in a coma for four days and woke up in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, probably for a week, and was later transported to the old Walter Reed Hospital," she said. Later, she was transferred to the new facility, now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
After sustaining her injuries, this former athlete began to not feel good about herself.
"I've always done sports, I've always been very athletic. The sport I'm focusing on right now is mostly my swimming. But I'm also doing biking in the Warrior Games.
When she was young, she often competed in swimming.
"I started when I was 8 years old and swam competitively for about five or six years, and then I stopped because I hated practice. I got bored, but I still did field hockey and softball in my off-time, and I used to be an avid runner until I got injured," she said.
SWIMMING AGAIN HELPS WITH LIFE
After being injured, she was overweight and didn't feel good about herself until someone told her about going to the pool one day a week.
"One of the coaches from the Army wounded warrior swim team here saw me swim and she said, 'you know, you're a good swimmer', and I said, 'oh, thank you.'
"So I told her about my past experiences swimming, and she said, try out for the Warrior Games back in 2010, so I tried out and I was very successful getting on the team, and I went over to Colorado Springs where I won gold for the 50-meter freestyle and bronze for the 50-meter backstroke.
"I thought this is so much fun. I didn't know about these games until someone told me about them, so I was like, ohhh, let me try out next year. So now I'm competing in the swimming (at the Warrior Games clinics at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.) to try and improve my times and everything," Mason said.
Her long-term goal is to swim at the Paralympics. Currently, she's trying to get to the time trials.
"Just coming to the games has helped me physically and mentally get better," she said, adding that since being immobilized for six months following the accident, swimming one day a week and continually increasing her time helped her lose weight.
"I lost the weight. I got stronger, physically and mentally, I got more competitive, and it helped me get back in that mood," she said, back to when she was always competitive and being positive.
"Now, when I look at my injuries, I look at them as ... I don't have my disabilities but I look at them as my abilities, what can I do to get better?" she asked.
The experience of being part of a team and meeting new people, she said, has been great.
This past March, Mason was cheering on her friends at the sitting volleyball clinic.
As of this writing, she will compete at the 2012 Warrior Games in several swimming events: 50-meter Free-Open Swim, 100-meter Free-Open Swim, and the 50-meter Back-Open, as well as the cycling Recumbent-10K. She also is a candidate for swimming relay events. Decisions on relay athletes, however, might not be made until the games begin.
Although she's been told she won't be able to run again, her other long-term goal is to do just that.
"I have a step brother and three step sisters. One was killed by a drunk driver, a year prior to my deployment in October 2009 and I think about her. But my family looks at me as a role model. Things can get better, even if you have this tragedy. You have to be positive and say, hey, I can overcome and stay positive.
"I know my sister, Jennifer, she's actually a twin, wants me to do a triathlon. Yeah, I'm already motivated to go do a triathlon; you just have to stay positive. It depends on that person and how you're going to accomplish that goal.
"I look at small little goals to accomplish a big one," Mason said.
WTC COMMANDER TALKS ABOUT SPORTS
"Sport is a great part of a Soldier's life," said Brig. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, commander of Army Warrior Transition Command, or WTC.
"Sport helps them feel good about themselves. So the camaraderie, the spirit that you see, the cohesion is a part of what's going to be on display at the Warrior Games. This is one of those building blocks toward that event.
"It's very contagious when you're around Soldiers who compete at the Olympic level.