2013 Warrior Games Highlights

The fourth annual Warrior Games has come to a close in Colorado Springs, and though it was close competition with the Army in every event, the Marines brought home the Chairman’s Cup once again.

“Congratulations to all of the 2013 Warrior Games competitors,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee, during the closing ceremony. “While we celebrate medals, this competition is really an example of how sport can change lives. We hope these service members and veterans don’t stop here. The goal is for them to return home and get involved in sport programs in their communities.”

The competition formally ended Thursday night at the U.S. Air Force Academy in a ceremony honoring the nearly 200 wounded troops and disabled veterans who represented their services in the inaugural Warrior Games.

Troops and veterans from the U.S. and Britain competed in a week-long series of paralympic-type events at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and at the academy. They were challenged as individuals and as teams in shooting, swimming, archery, sitting volleyball, cycling, wheelchair basketball and track and field events.

The USO and all of the volunteers from Colorado were proud to stand by the side of these elite athletes throughout the week of Paralympic competition. Please enjoy this montage of footage from the past week of Warrior Games competition.

–Video and story by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO staff writer

Golden Anniversary: Blind Navy EOD Officer Swims for Gold Exactly One Year After Combat Injury

Exactly one year after losing his sight in Afghanistan, Navy Lt. Brad Snyder earned a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Christopher Lee / Getty Images for NBC News

An “Alive Day” is the anniversary of the day a wounded warrior was injured in combat. Some look at it as the day he or she escaped death. It may also be the day many of these brave men and women were left with lifelong scars—both visible and invisible.

It is a day to celebrate, not to mourn.

For Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, today is that day—and it is Golden. It was one year ago today that the former Naval Academy swim team captain was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device while on patrol in Afghanistan. One year ago today that a bomb blast took his eyesight but left him with every bit of God-given drive and determination he was born with. Today he is showing the world that he is still just as great—just as valuable—as he always has been.

Today is a golden anniversary for Snyder because less than an hour ago he swam for his third Paralympics medal, this time defeating the competition in the 400-meter Freestyle, finishing with a time of 04:32:41—three seconds faster than his qualifying time.

In the span of one year he has progressed from a hospital bed to the medal stands at both the Warrior Games and the Paralympic Games in London. He is a shining example of the raw talent contained within our Armed Forces and a testament to the quality of rehabilitation through adaptive sport.

Congratulations Lieutenant Snyder! You are a hero and an inspiration to us all. — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Learn more about Warrior Games and other USO Warrior and Family Care programs that help wounded warriors recover from combat injuries through adaptive sports.

What the Blind Can Do

Army Capt. Ivan Castro, center, accepts the ceremonial torch from Air Force Capt. Tony Simone during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 1, 2012. Since his combat injury in 2006, Castro has sought to redefine the word “disability” as he completes one monumental feat after another while still serving on active duty in Special Operations. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

If you have followed this blog since the start of the summer you have read some pretty remarkable stories of wounded veterans using adaptive sports to get their lives back.

You read about the story of Brad Snyder, the blind Navy Explosive Ordnance
officer who broke World Paralympics swimming records in London less than a
year after being hit by an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan. You’ve read the inspiring story of Jim Castaneda, who, to his 10-year-old son, was “better than Superman” for having the courage to persevere in the face of adversity at the 2012 Warrior Games. And you read the recovery story of Christopher “Aggie” Aguilera and his co-pilot, Tony Simone—the only two survivors of a horrific helicopter crash just two years ago.

After hearing all those remarkable stories, however, I am still floored when I meet people like Army Capt. Ivan Castro. I caught up with him on the final leg of a 3,800 mile bicycle ride across the country, where he taught me what it is the blind can do.

He was extremely tan from the long ride and wearing sunglasses, I couldn’t tell at first that his entire right cheek was a prosthetic, that he is missing his right eye or that shrapnel had taken sight from his other eye. He was wearing long sleeves, so I couldn’t see the scars there either. I didn’t know that pieces of his arm and shoulder were gone. I did, however, notice the black steel bracelet around his wrist inscribed with the names of the two soldiers who lost their lives in the blast that nearly killed him.

He never takes that off.

A native of Hoboken, New Jersey, Castro has served in Special Operations since 1999, and still serves on active duty today. He’s fought in every climb and place from Bosnia to South America, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2006, he was commanding a joint recon-scout sniper platoon from a rooftop in Youssifiyah, Iraq, when an 82mm mortar shell exploded five feet from his position. He was severely wounded and evacuated back to the States in critical condition. It took nearly 40 surgeries to repair his body, but his vision could not be restored.

Ivan Castro

“I had no clue what the blind could do,” said 44-year-old Castro. “As a service member you don’t think about these things. You train, deploy, and it’s like a black and white situation. Black, you come back in a body bag—white, you come back fine. We don’t think about that gray area … when you come back injured.”

For the past six years he has used adaptive sports to push the limits of his recovery. He has completed more than 30 tandem marathons, rode a tandem bicycle from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, and now has his sights set on hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I have both legs, both arms, I can breathe and speak on my own, and I have a network of help from family, friends and the Special Operations community. Part of what has made my recovery so successful has been sports like cycling.”

After he was injured he couldn’t walk, so he had to start from scratch on a
mechanical bike. He graduated from recumbent cycle to upright bicycle to elliptical, spinning, then on to tandem cycling with a sighted partner—once a week, twice a week, and then three times a week.

“It’s fun, but not easy on the nerves,” said Castro. “When you’re on a bike and you’re blind, you are putting all of your faith and confidence in your pilot. It’s one thing when you’re walking around with a cane, or even running, but when you’re on a bicycle and you’re going 60 miles per hour down some hill somewhere in Colorado, anything can happen. It’s an incredible rush, feeling the inertia, but not being able to see what’s in your path can make it scary if you don’t trust your pilot.”

Castro rides tandem during the Sea to Shining Sea bike ride. S2SS photo by Mike Sanders

“Bill [his civilian pilot] had the patience, maturity and skill level to take me across the country,” said Castro. “That’s not something that was easy to find. If you talk to any cyclist they will tell you they would like to cycle across America, but very few have what it takes to do it. I’m very grateful to Bill and to World T.E.A.M. Sports for giving me the opportunity to do this.”

Undeterred by things most of us might consider “obstacles,” Castro is on a personal mission to redefine how we understand and perceive persons with disabilities.

Perhaps this is why he was the first blind service member asked to walk into Brad Snyder’s hospital room after he was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device last September. Perhaps this is why he was chosen to stand next to the First Lady and receive the torch from Tony Simone and Aggie during the opening ceremony at the 2012 Warrior Games.

“I don’t dwell on what I’ve lost,” he explained. “I just concern myself with positive people always and am grateful for what I have. It was a Marine who came into my hospital room and inspired me, just as I might have inspired Snyder. Civilians like Bill and the USO volunteers that have come along for this ride—they do their part to drive me. I’m not a one-man show, and I’m not special.”

“I depend—just like all of us do—on other people, and as long as I have my network of support, I know exactly what it is the blind can do,” he concluded. “Anything I want.” — By Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

That Others May Live: Crash Survivor Returns to Flight Status

Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera, right, assists the only other survivor of the crash, his co-pilot, Capt. Anthony Simone, during the torch relay ceremony at the start of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, May 1.

Two years of pain, frustration and hard work has finally paid off for Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera.

Known as “Aggie” by his personal trainer and close friends because of his affinity for Texas A&M, he was one of only two survivors of a deadly helicopter crash during a combat rescue mission in Afghanistan in June 2010.

On Friday, he received some good news:

“Due to MSgt Aguilera’s tremendous efforts in recovery and rehabilitation, he has received waivers to return to unconditional flying status.” – Air Force Capt. H. Leo Tanaka, M.D.

Just two summers ago the 35-year-old, El Paso, Texas native was a gunner aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter scrambled to evacuate a critically wounded British Royal Marine outside Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Afghanistan.

It was the third combat rescue within 24 hours for his crew of the 563rd Rescue Group, and since the sun had come up it would be their first of the day without the cover of darkness.

“It smelled of a really bad situation,” Aggie said. “But when you are doing combat rescues you have to go in no matter what your gut says. Someone is dying and it’s our job to save them. These things I do, that others may live—that is our motto.”

The two airships raced into the heart of one of the most hostile territories of Helmand Province—Sangin—where the British had already lost nearly 100 Marines that summer.

As the two rescue choppers (known as Pedros) convened above FOB Jackson, the “two-ship” began its descent while Aggie’s bird circled to provide combat support. Everything was going according to plan until he heard the gut-wrenching ting ting ting of machine gun fire impacting the tail rotor of his helicopter.

The pilots and crew reacted quickly to maneuver the aircraft away from the base and the other bird before they lost what little lift they had and plummeted to the earth at nearly 140 mph. The helicopter burst into flames.

Flight Engineer David Smith, Combat Rescue Officer Capt. Joel Gents, Pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores and Senior Airman Benjamin White all perished.

Six-foot-two, 225-pound Aggie found himself in a heap of shredded metal, fire and blood.

The violent crash broke his ankle in two places and his back in five. It fractured his femur, hip and tailbone. It broke four ribs, his jaw, sternum and collar bone, and it punctured his lung. His seat tore through his upper-left hamstring all the way up to his hip. On top of all that, he was on fire.

“I was sitting there basically waiting to die,” he said. “I could hear the enemy closing in, but I wasn’t scared. It was time to join my brothers.”

The British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported that a company of 90 Commandos immediately “crashed out” of their base in a desperate race against the insurgents to get to the wreckage first.

“When we got to it, the whole of the [helicopter] was in flames,” said Royal Marine Sgt. Rick Angove, one of the first on-scene.

After setting up a perimeter, the Marines—assisted by the crew of the second bird—pulled the two unconscious pilots from the burning aircraft just as armor-piercing ammunition began exploding. Five more Marines fought the fires in the fuselage and worked to free the severely wounded and badly burned Aguilera.

The pilot, Capt. David Wisniewski, died 23 days later with his family and his fiancé by his side. Co-Pilot Capt. Anthony (Tony) Simone eventually woke from his coma and is steadily recovering from severe traumatic brain injuries that have paralyzed the left side of his body.

“At first I was in denial,” said Aguilera upon hearing details of the crash. “I didn’t want to accept that I’d lost so many friends that day. About a week later I was watching TV in my hospital bed and it all hit me. They were talking about another round of amputations and it finally started to sink in that everything in my life had changed. I had lost my friends forever and I didn’t know what would become of me. I was crippled—both in body and mind.”

He endured more than 25 surgeries to repair his shattered body. A large portion of his left calf was amputated due to severe burns and he was finally released back to duty in a wheelchair five months after the crash. Life in a chair, however, was unacceptable for him.

“The military got me to the point where I could effectively transition from my wheelchair to a toilet,” he said. “But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the military. I wanted to get back to my job—to get back to combat.”

After his final surgery in June 2011, he met with Mel Batterman, a civilian personal trainer at his local gym outside Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

“He was just out of his wheelchair—using a cane—and he barely had any balance,” said Batterman, a 15-year veteran of the fitness industry. She knew she had the ability to help him recover so she offered her assistance pro-bono.

“He’s a true hero—a personal and professional inspiration to me,” Batterman said. “He says he does it so others may live—and I can get on board with that.

“There’s no question his goals were ambitious considering where he started,” she added, “but Aggie has a tremendous amount of inner drive and a huge heart. More-so than I’ve ever seen. The guys who didn’t make it through that accident—he carries them with him every day.”

At the start of their training just one year ago, Aggie weighed in at a meager 180 pounds. The lack of muscle tissue and nerve endings in his calf meant re-training the body to tell what little muscle he had left to take over and function as if it were all there.

“Many people in his situation would give up or let their wounds define them,” Batterman said. “He never did that. He said to me, ‘This is my life, and this is my job—get me there.’ So I did.”

“If it wasn’t for her, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d still be in a wheelchair today,” Aguilera said. “She took me from wheelchair to running. She saved my life. She changed my life. She did it so I could live.”

The first major milestone of his recovery came this summer, when he participated in the 2012 Warrior Games, a military Paralympics competition sponsored by the USO. He competed in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, shot put, discus, seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball, helping to bring home four bronze medals for the Air Force.

Now, just two years after the accident, Master Sgt. Aguilera is officially “back.” His balance is no different than anybody else’s, and he even scored a 92 on his recent physical fitness test—considered “excellent” by Air Force standards.

He hopes to return to Afghanistan by spring of 2013, and this time he intends to finish his deployment and return to the States on his own terms.

“Returning to flying status will show a lot of the guys in the rescue community that no matter what happens—even if the worst happens—you can still come back,” he said. “It will give them confidence to know that there’s life after this. You can survive and you can go on and you can come back.”

Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Blinded EOD Tech to Swim on U.S. Paralympic Team

Blinded Navy Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer Brad Snyder, right, is guided by his younger brother Mitchell as they race together to win the 1500 meter gold medal in track at the 2012 Warrior Games. Since his combat injury, Snyder has focused on track and swimming to bring new vision to his life. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

U.S. Paralympian and wounded warrior Navy Lt. Brad Snyder can swim 100 meters in less than a minute.

That’s almost Michael Phelps-fast.

Even if the 28-year-old explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer still had his sight, a sub-sixty-second 100-meter time would be worthy of national praise. Without it, Snyder clocks in as one of the fastest visually impaired swimmers on the planet.

Over the weekend, he clinched his spot on the U.S. Paralympic swim team bound for London with a blockbuster race in another of his favorite events , the 400-meter freestyle.  Snyder took 54 seconds off his previous best time, finishing in 4:35:62.

It Happened So Recently

Just this past September, the former captain of his Naval Academy swim team was leading a patrol in Afghanistan on a life-saving mission to find and disarm improvised explosive devices (IED’s) placed by Taliban militants.

As Snyder’s team moved through farm land, a mine went off injuring two allied Afghan fighters at the front of their column. When Snyder rushed to their aid, he stepped on a second pressure plate, setting off another explosion. The initial shock wave knocked his goggles off, leaving his eyes exposed to the blinding flash of the blast.

He knew he was hurt pretty bad, but he still had some vision as he walked to the extraction helicopter. When he arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center a few days later, however, he was told he would lose his sight forever.

A Brother’s Love

Snyder had no plans of playing the victim. Just weeks after he was released from the hospital he began running with his younger brother—connected by a short piece of rope and a lifetime of mutual respect.

“I’ve always looked up to him,” said 24-year-old Mitchell Snyder. “He’s my older brother and he’s always been such an inspiration to me growing up. He’s such a tireless worker.  There was no way I was going to let him sit around. That’s not who he is.”

The Snyder brothers ran together for weeks before Brad decided he wanted to get back in the pool “where he belonged.”

“The water is my home,” he said. “It’s my safe-haven. It’s a place where without my sight I still feel like I can be free to push myself physically, and it’s the only place where I don’t feel anxiety, like I’m about to run into something or hurt myself.”

New Vision

At the 2012 Warrior Games—an annual Paralympics competition held in Colorado Springs and sponsored by the USO—Snyder re-entered the world of competitive swimming for the first time since his injury.

“Here’s a guy with everything in the world going for him,” said Will Wilson, head coach of the Navy / Coast Guard Team. “A young lieutenant out there on the pointy end of the spear saving lives and he has a bad day—a bad day that robbed him of his sight. Fortunately it didn’t rob him of his soul, which has given him new vision toward competitive swimming and track.”

For Snyder, however, the way forward is sticking to the old vision he had when he mapped out his future.

“I want to do the same things I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I want a family, I want a graduate degree, and I want a house of my own. My goals are still the same.  I’m just a little more driven to accomplish them because I understand how easily situations can change.” –  Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Better than Superman

Retired Navy Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jim Castaneda in the cycling competition at the 2012 Warrior Games. Although his tire blew out, he continued to push to the finish line. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

In Colorado Springs, an 11-year-old boy explains why he attended the 2012 Warrior Games.

“I came here to see my hero,” he said, chest puffed out. “Superman can dodge a bullet, but my dad can actually take one. He is better than Superman. He is a real hero.”

His father, 47-year-old retired Navy Petty Officer Jim Castaneda, may indeed be more powerful than a locomotive. The El Paso, Texas, native inspired everyone, including his son Jef, when he finished a 20 kilometer bicycle race with only one leg and one tire.

Wounded in combat three times, Castaneda survived multiple explosions that caused severe traumatic brain injury. In 2007, he survived a series of strokes that left him with significant paralysis. Today he can’t feel anything on the right side of his body.

Because of his injuries, he was racing a seated, recumbent bicycle, with his right arm and leg taped to the frame to keep them from getting injured. He would operate the cycle with one leg, one arm and one big superhero heart.

His wife and son cheered as he shot from the starting line—faster than a speeding bullet. It was the first time his family had ever seen Jim compete at the Warrior Games.

But it wasn’t long before Jim realized something was very wrong with his bike. After he rounded the first turn, an official approached on a motorcycle and pointed out that his left tire had gone completely flat.

“A lesser guy would have quit,” said his coach, retired Navy Master Chief Will Wilson. “But Jim doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

Castaneda waived off the official and put his cycle into the lowest gear possible. Each revolution took everything out of his left thigh. Each hill proved more and more difficult to crest. When his leg finally began to tremble, more officials rode up on motorcycles. They asked twice more if he would like to stop, and twice more he waived them off.

“I swear—at times, I wanted to quit,” said Castaneda. “I’ll be honest I wanted to quit. But every time I felt the urge, I thought of my teammates and I thought about my son. I wanted to prove to my son that we always finish what we start. We never quit.”

As he rounded the final turn, Castaneda was nearly unconscious—blacking out from exhaustion. His teammates ran onto the track cheering as they jogged beside him for the final 500 meters of the race. It seemed to take every bit of his superhero strength, but Castaneda felt he couldn’t stop until he made it across the finish line where his loving wife and admiring son were waiting.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Castaneda. “This was bigger than me. If I was to quit, then it would be OK for anyone—my son, the Navy, America—to quit. But it’s not OK. We do not quit.”

As he crossed the finish line the entire Warrior Games audience erupted in applause. The other competitors made their way to the finish line to shake the hand of this incredibly courageous athlete.

“He may not have feeling in much of his body,” said Wilson, “but I know where he does have feeling—that’s in his heart. He’s got the heart of a hero, and we all felt it beat that day.” – Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

This Father’s Day, salute the superhero dad in your life while supporting the troops with a gift from the USO Father’s Day Wishbook.