By Gretel C. Kovach | San Diego Union Tribune | utsandiego.com | May 17, 2013
The Marines fought off a near upset from the Army this week in the 2013 Warrior Games, claiming a fourth Chairman’s Cup and another year of bragging rights as undefeated champion of the athletic competition for troops injured by combat, illness or accidents.
At closing ceremonies Thursday night in Colorado Springs, Colo., the 50-member team of active duty and veteran Marines belted their hymn for the crowd, singing “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…” Some of the athletes sat in wheelchairs or stood on prosthetic legs. Some couldn’t see the cup they passed around, but they kissed and hugged it and each other.
Marine camaraderie and spirit, including a refusal to accept defeat or one’s own limitations, physical or mental, carried them to victory, said Col. Willard Buhl, commanding officer of the Wounded Warrior Regiment for active duty Marines in recovery.
“That’s how we live every day and that’s how these athletes trained and how they came together as a family, as a unit. They performed like Marines. We think we are the best in the world, and we are!” Buhl told U-T in a phone interview after the ceremony, his voice ebullient with pride.
The Warrior Games were created to encourage a healthy, active lifestyle for troops with permanent physical disabilities such as amputations, as well as traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.
Visually impaired runners circled the track with a helping hand to guide them. During trials, one athlete used his teeth to draw his archery bow. The crowd of families and other supporters rattled the gym with their cheers during sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball tournaments.
“Sometimes we have to hide therapy with fun and competition. And this is a very, very important aspect of our healing. It’s not just the physical, it is absolutely the spiritual connection. The teamwork,” Buhl said.
Deloitte was presenting sponsor, with the U.S. Olympic Committee as host. Other supporters included the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, USO, Fisher House Foundation, AT&T, BP, Budweiser and the Semper Fi Fund.
“Paralympic sport has a tremendously positive impact on individuals with physical disabilities, and the Warrior Games allow us to salute these fine young men and women who have served their countries honorably,” Charlie Huebner, chief of paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said in a press release.
The competition at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy included 260 athletes grouped into teams of varying sizes representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard, Air Force, Special Operations and British troops.
The Marine Corps fielded a team of 50, including 16 from the San Diego area and six women.
The Chairman’s Cup for the top performing team has been jokingly nicknamed the Commandant’s Cup because of the Marine winning streak since the inaugural Warrior Games in 2010. But the competition was closer this year than ever.
For the individual pentathlon competition, a Marine took the Ultimate Champion title the previous two years. This time Air Force Capt. Mitchell Kieffer won.
Army started with a strong push for the cup, pulling ahead of the Marines early on and ultimately matching them in gold medals with 83 each. It came down to the swim competition on the last day, but the Marines dominated with 93 medals and a Chairman’s Cup score of 100 to Army’s 85. Navy and Coast Guard scored 37.18, Air Force 31, and Special Operations Command 21.25, with results weighted according to team size.
Cpl. Breanna Dill, of Oceanside, earned a gold and two silver medals in swimming at her first Warrior Games. She was cut in the head at Camp Pendleton in October and suffered spinal and traumatic brain injuries.
All the services invested a lot of sweat and hard work in the games, but the Marines prevailed because “we put everything into it,” Dill told the U.S. Olympic Committee.
For Buhl, whose regiment includes 739 injured Marines and sailors, the games were spiked with emotional highs and spirited competition. Prince Harry, the British royal who served in Helmand Province as an Apache helicopter pilot, attended opening ceremonies, drawing welcome publicity.
The Commandant and the Sergeant Major of the Corps saw Marine Staff Sgt. Ronnie Jimenez from Twentynine Palms win gold in the opening event, crossing the finish first in hand cycling.
Other highlights included Cpl. Matt Webb, a British Royal Marine who lost three limbs in a roadside bomb explosion in Helmand Province, swimming a 100-meter race.
Sgt. Rachel Brokaw, a farm girl from Iowa stationed at Camp Lejeune, could barely dog paddle a month ago. She won a Bronze medal for the women’s 50-meter backstroke.
Cpl. Kyle Reid, a Camp Pendleton Marine known for a beautiful swimming stroke and a big heart, developed hallucinations and seizures while working in Afghanistan loading bodies. He won three golds and four silvers, and nearly closed the gap swimming the final leg of a relay, Buhl said.
The most touching moment for Buhl involved a flashback to his time as commander of the 5th Marine Regiment in 2010, when two of the competitors, Marcus Chischilly and Josue Barron, each lost a leg serving with Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan.
Buhl was there when the medevac flight brought them home. He tracked their healing at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
Then at the 2013 Warrior Games, “I’m watching Marcus run on this prosthetic leg and his salvaged leg around the track,” Buhl recalled. “It was just a paralyzing emotional moment watching him. He’s come back so well from horrific injuries and he is such an inspiration to everybody and to me. But really, they are all like that.”
At the Warrior Games, “people realize their dreams. They realize they can do anything, anything they want if they set their minds to it.”
Check out more photos on the Team Semper Fi Facebook page!
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