By Rob McIlvaineJune 14, 2012
WASHINGTON (June 15, 2012) -- This Soldier-athlete believes in hard work, thanks to his father. And after having his leg amputated due to an improvised explosive device in Iraq, that hard work helped him become a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP.
For his hard work, Master Sgt. Edward O'Neil, a volleyball player, will represent other Army WCAP athletes at the Army's 237th birthday celebration and ball, June 16, in the nation's capital. The ball comes at the conclusion of the Army's week-long celebration of it's June 14, 1775 birthday. This year, the Army is 237 years old.
Other WCAP Soldiers attending the event include Spc. Justin Olsen, whose team won the Gold at Vancouver for bobsledding, and Spc. Dennis Bowsher, modern pentathlon competitor.
The Army Ball invitation is exciting, O'Neil said, because he knows he's near the end of his career and he's never been before.
"The one thing I asked, after being invited, was I want to be able to take my wife with me. In my 21 years, we've never been to an Army Ball. For everything my wife has been through, I kind of feel like I owe it to her to step out in a formal environment, so we can enjoy a nice evening," O'Neil said.
O'Neil served first in uniform with the Navy, from 1988 to 1992. After that tour of duty, "I got out and did what a lot of people do: you go to school and figure a few things out, what you want to do with your future," O'Neil said. "I decided to come into the Army in 1995 and I've been in the Army for 17 years."
He and his wife, Shalynn, have a six-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old son, and a 16-year-old son. Originally from Northampton, Mass., O'Neil and his family now live in Edmond, Okla.
INJURED IN IRAQ
At the start of his third tour in Iraq, in May 2008, O'Neil was injured by a more deadly form of improvised explosive device, the explosively formed penetrator, or EFP.
"I was wounded May 2008 in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, on a convoy," O'Neil said. "I was blown up. My driver was killed. We hit an explosively formed penetrator, a type of improvised explosive device."
The explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, he said, is a very powerful weapon that easily penetrates armor. The Soldiers feel safe in a Bradley or Stryker, until suddenly and EFP enters the vehicle and goes out the other side.
"I was injured with shrapnel wounds, and my left leg was pretty messed up," he said.
O'Neil refers to getting injured as the close of one chapter and then moving on to recovery in the second chapter.
After being hit, O'Neil went first to Balad Air Base in Iraq, before heading up to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. After that, it was on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He did his recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
"After my leg was amputated, I got on my prosthetic," O'Neil said. "I really wanted to get back on my feet. There's a lot of reasons for my motivation. Of course, one of them would be my family."
Another reason for his motivation, he said, was that he did not want to simply lie around and cry about his situation. But he had to work through certain things that were very difficult.
"I would say the whole PTSD aspect for me was very difficult and still is," he said.
The whole recovery process, he said, was very shocking.
"I was not ready for it. I thought I was but I wasn't," O'Neil said. "Your stump goes through different stages. It starts off big and then it gets smaller and then you have to learn how to take care of it. But I wanted to run and get back on my feet."
To appear normal and to not draw attention to himself, he said he worked on his gait -- the way he walks -- so it's not noticeable at all that he has a prosthetic device on one leg. He also wears long pants.
"When people see it, there's always a bunch of questions, although I have no issues answering any of them," O'Neil said.
WORLD CLASS ATHLETE PROGRAM
"I've always been into sports, recreationally, as a child," O'Neil said. He was interested too in baseball, as well as the professional sports teams in Massachusetts, including the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots, the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics.
He also played volleyball while attending school at Amherst High School. That's his sport now, as part of the WCAP.
"At 42, I'm a lot older than most in WCAP, and that always has to be taken into consideration," he said. "But it's all about your drive and your initiative, and I like sports."
WCAP, headquartered at Fort Carson, Colo., supports nationally and internationally ranked Soldiers as they work to make U.S. Olympic teams in either the Olympics or the Paralympic Games. Since 1997, 40 Soldier-athletes have participated in the summer and winter Olympic Games winning gold, silver, and bronze medals.
"After high school, I didn't play volleyball for a long time except for some pick-up games or beach volleyball, but not competitively. I shifted to running and cycling; things I could do outdoors with my family," he said.
When an athlete starts playing sitting volleyball at a world-class level, he said, they discover it's a fast-paced sport with no time to think of the next move. It's all muscle memory.
"I'm a defensive player," he said. "I'm the libero for the team, so I never go to the front row. I'm a defensive passing specialist, it's all I do. It's basically my job to enhance the defensive game."
The libero position, a defensive specialist, was added to the game in 1999 along with special rules for play in order to foster more digs and rallies and to make the game more exciting.
"When I was going through my recovery, I really wanted to go back to my unit back in Fort Carson, Colorado," O'Neil said. "I contacted the surgeon in the unit and said I want to go back in the Special Forces group, work through my recovery, and get back out to the war."
He knew he didn't want to be injured or wounded any longer, and wanted to just get back on his feet and keep moving.
To help in his quest, he went to a military sports camp at a place called Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., where he first saw sitting volleyball.
"It's one of these sports camps where they show you all these disabled and adaptive sports for wounded warriors or people that are injured, and that's where I saw sitting volleyball," he said. "We played a quick game, and because of the way I set the ball or moved, or hit, a recruiter for the national team asked me if I wanted to check it out in Edmond, Okla., at the University of Central Oklahoma."
O'Neil went to a national camp in April 2009. He said camp coordinators told him they'd like to have him train with the resident athlete program.
"I was very intrigued by the invitation to do this, because it was never my intent to do this, it's something I kind of fell in to," O'Neil said.
His wife did some research and learned that Fort Carson, Colo., is where the World Class Athlete Program is located. O'Neil was accepted into the WCAP in 2010, and moved his family to Edmond.
"I train five days a week, about four hours each day, and we have a national camp every month or so. On my own, I'll do cardio and things of that nature," O'Neil said.
This July his team will compete in a tournament in Brazil. But in his competitions, he's been around the world. He's been twice to Egypt, to England, and played in Sarajevo, the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He's been more than once to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1998 he was there in the French sector. He said then it was like a war zone with everything torn up. He went back again in 2003 on a mission and said things had really picked up a lot.
"Last May, I went back to that same base that was in the French sector back in 1998, and there were parks, and all the war damage had mostly been picked up and renovated. The building I stayed in was a restaurant and hotel and it was very exciting to see the transformation all the way through," he said.
During last month's Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, he was on the U.S. Special Operations Command team and participated in two running events, the 1,500 and the 4 x100, but he wasn't allowed to play sitting volleyball, because he's on the national team.
"I didn't do that well, because we just showed up there and had a one-week train-up and then competed against other teams, Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marine teams," O'Neil said. "A lot of those people train year-round, but I was just happy to be out there and to be around those types of folks."
O'Neil said the experience, for him, is about more than the competition.
"It was about the camaraderie and just sharing stories and information that was really big for me, and my wife and my kids were out there and we had a good time," he said.
"We had three opportunities to make the Paralympics in London this summer," O'Neil said. "The first one was at our world championships back in 2010. The top three teams out of 25 teams would get an automatic Olympic bid and we were not among them."
Then, he said, they went on to probably their best chance, which was at the Parapan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico, last November. There, they beat Brazil in their opening match.
The Parapan American Games is used as a qualifying event for the Paralympics.
"We were like 6 and 0 going into the gold medal match and we lost to Brazil and it was a huge let down, a huge disappointment," O'Neil said. "We got the silver medal; but it's just not enough, it's not good enough. And it's disappointing because we realized that we let that opportunity slip away. We did our best, we played our best, but it just wasn't good enough, so that's disappointing."
In March, the team went to Cairo, Egypt, to compete in the 2012 World Organization Volleyball for Disabled International Cup. Among 20 teams there to compete, there was only one slot that would advance to the Olympic Games.
"We lost to Germany and they won the Olympic bid -- the last one available in the world," O'Neil said.
His team not qualifying for the London games was a huge letdown.
"But disappointment is a part of sport, so we had to regroup and figure out what we're going to do to get on track so we can qualify the women's team is going, the men's team is not, so we have to figure out how we're going to get to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016, even though I might not make it, but I certainly want to," he said.
SUPPORT FROM OTHERS
One of O'Neil's strongest supports was his father.
"My father passed away in March 2002, but he was always a working class man and he enjoyed physical labor, mowing lawns, and got us all involved in taking pride in our work and just the whole realization that life is work," O'Neil said. "I didn't realize it until I was older how hard he actually worked and what effect he had on my life. I admire the heck out of him. He had drive, initiative and leadership values that everybody can admire."
His other inspiration comes from being around other wounded people.
"I would say that one of the main things that helped me move forward with my life would be playing on the national team," O'Neil said. "I'm around people, a lot of them are congenital, people that were born missing a limb, or (people) who were in accidents as young children."
O'Neil said when he's around those people, he sees how they have progressed in their own lives.
"Just being around these types of people, the disability disappears and you get to see the types of people that they really are, and you can look past the disability," O'Neil said. "It's really helped me."
O'Neil said his mission changed a bit when his team didn't qualify in March.
"I go around to places like Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and we go to the rehabilitation centers and talk to service members who might have enough talent to get into a World Class Athlete Program," he said.
There's a push right now to recruit Soldier-athletes, to actively seek out members who were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who were injured in a car accident, he said.
"So that's my second job and I really enjoy it," O'Neil said. "I'm trying to get people to try certain sports, not just try them, but meet the standards. So for the winter games in 2014 and the summer games of 2016, in Rio, hopefully you'll see some of these folks on the podium. That's the mission."
O'Neil said he hopes that others will be inspired to help wounded warriors realize their sporting potential, because, he said, he'll be retiring soon and "the war will probably still be going on."
"Wounded warriors getting back on their feet is the number one, feel-good story of the last 10 years," O'Neil said. "I know that, and I'm just happy to be a part of it."