National Volunteer Week: Frank and Helen Marsh

Frank and Helen Marsh represent the lifeblood of the USO: our volunteers. Frank served as a parachute rigger in the Marines from 1955 to 1957, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant before he got out. He and his wife Helen found their USO volunteer opportunity through the Knights of Columbus, where Frank has been a member for almost 50 years.

We caught up with the Marshes at the USO Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton, Calif.,  where they handed out energy bars, snacks and refreshments to wounded warriors competing in the archery event.

When Riding a Bike is Not ‘Like Riding a Bike’

Recovery from catastrophic injury takes time – and patience.

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Oscar “Oz” Sanchez, shows off his Paralympics Gold Medals on March 3 at the Marine Corps Trials at Camp Pendleton Calif. USO photos by Joseph Andrew Lee

For Recon Marine and two-time Paralympic handcycling gold medalist Oscar “Oz” Sanchez — known by some as the “fastest cyclist on two hands” — recovering from a spinal injury meant accepting his paralysis and refocusing his energy on a new passion. It was about recognizing a new reality and learning how to apply a positive mental attitude to a new sport, which took time.

For others – like retired Marine Capt. Derek Liu and Australian Defence Force Signaler Gary Wilson – who are each working to overcome severe brain injuries, recovery means reminding the brain how to walk, talk, read and write. It’s relearning the old and then learning something new, which takes patience.

I met these three athletes at the Marine Corps Trials, an international Paralympic competition held by the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and sponsored by USO San Diego. The trials are held annually to select the Corps’ best wounded, ill and injured athletes to compete against its sister services at the annual Warrior Games in Colorado.

All Paths are Not Paved

With victory in his eyes and pride on his chest, “Oz Sanchez” had a certain confidence about him at the trials. Maybe it was the London Paralympics gold swinging from his neck like he was keeping time. No one could avoid catching his contagious smile.

As I listened to his story, though, I learned he wasn’t always so optimistic. After two deployments with 1st Recon Battalion, Sanchez saw his dreams of serving in one of America’s most elite warfighting units — SEAL Team 6 — wash away.

He was in the middle of making the transition from the Marine Corps to the Navy SEALs when a hit-and-run motorcycle accident left him with a severe spinal injury. A wave of depression came over him. He initially drowned his sorrows in alcohol and painkillers. It wasn’t until two years after his injury that he pulled himself out of depression and onto a handcycle.

The transition to a handcycle was challenging, but he knew recovery meant meeting challenges head on, pushing through and setting bigger goals for himself.

After winning all the local races in Southern California, he competed at the nationals in Colorado, where he was introduced to the Paralympics team.

Only five years after learning to ride a hand cycle, Sanchez won his first Paralympics gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

“Things are only as bad as you allow them to get,” he said. “Sure, you’re dealing with the inherent truth of whatever your physical state is, but that’s just your body that’s broken — not your mind.”

TBI, ABI and PMA

For Liu and Wilson — who’ve both made great strides in the year after I first met them at the 2012 Marine Corps Trials — the same concept holds true.

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Swimming coach Dawn Romero helps Marine veteran Capt. Derek Liu with adaptive swimming techniques. Liu recently participated in his second Marine Corps Trials. Photo by Pat Cubel

In 2007, Liu suffered cardiac arrest while jogging at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Wilson was involved in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2011. Both incurred brain injuries and were in comas for nearly two months after their respective accidents.

Most head injuries today are categorized as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which is a broad category that always involves trauma to the brain, but can also indicate damage to structures other than the brain, such as the scalp and skull. Liu and Wilson were affected by anoxic brain injury (ABI), which is when the brain is damaged by lack of oxygen. A 2005 study demonstrated the cognitive and emotional injuries that result from both ABI and TBI are — in fact — one and the same, and the severity depends on the volume of grey matter physically compromised.

For Wilson and Liu, the damage was as severe as it gets.

“I’m no longer the person I once was and cannot do the things I did before,” Liu said. “My memory is still not trustworthy, I get confused easily, and my vision is poor.

“I’ve had to find out who the new Derek is.”

Physical Fitness is Key

For Sanchez, Liu and Wilson physical fitness plays a key role in their ability to maintain a healthy mindset.

“One of the things I missed the most, and what had me in such a doom-and-gloom state, was not being able to work out,” Sanchez said. “Once I started to get active again, I started to get some healthy thoughts back, and that effect snowballed into success. What was once me feeling like I was a product of the situation turned into me being in control of the situation.”

According to Dr. Mark Bates, Associate Director of Population Health at the Deployment Health Clinical Center, physical health and mental resiliency are closely related.

“Some of the things one can do to build psychological resilience aren’t necessarily psychological, and research suggests a strong relationship between being physically fit and mentally fit,” Bates wrote in an email. “Regular exercise increases energy, improves cognitive abilities and can help prevent or treat depression.”

Mental Health and Adaptive Sports

“Running and swimming were passions of mine,” Liu said. “So gaining back the physical strength enough to do them has boosted my confidence, and that lets me know that there is so much more I can do and achieve.”

Wilson plans to become a psychologist so he can look after people who have been through similar situations.

“I’ve been seeing a psychologist for almost two years now,” he said, “and it’s helped me heal a great deal better.

“There’s no judgment. Having someone who is genuinely interested in your progression and helping you deal with the issues that come along has been invaluable to me.”

Sanchez is exemplifying his own motto: “Know no limits.”

“It’s a long road to recovery, and it’s not always paved,” he told a group of handcyclists at the trials. “How will you get there? That’s the most difficult part, and it’s up to you. But believe me, you will get there.”

Liu builds his confidence with each new skill he masters. So far, nothing has been “like riding a bike.”

“When one is initially injured like I was, the gravity of the situation doesn’t hit you right away, but it will in five or 10 years,” Liu said. “Down the line you begin to see the outcome of your hard work and start to realize why you pushed on. The prognosis may not get better, but your adaptation to your injury and outlook on life will get a lot better.”

–Story by Joseph A. Lee, USO Staff Writer

USO San Diego Supports Marine Corps Trials

The Marine Corps has kicked off its competitive selection process to find 50 athletes to represent the service at the fourth annual Warrior Games — a Paralympics-style competition for wounded, ill and injured members of America’s armed services.

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Wheelchair racing is a popular event at the Marine Corps Trials. USMC Photo

The Marine Corps Trials – hosted by the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment and supported by USO San Diego – includes individual and team competitions in sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, swimming, cycling, shooting, archery, and track and field. The competition officially opened Thursday.

Four teams – Battalion East, Battalion West, Marine Corps Veteran and International – will go head-to-head for the team gold medal. The international team includes wounded, ill and injured military athletes from eight allied nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Colombia and the Netherlands.

Every year, the competition intensifies as more athletes vie for a spot in the Warrior Games, a unique event that hosts teams comprised from the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Special Operations Command in a different kind of battle. Although competition is fierce and emotions run high, the trials and the subsequent Warrior Games are designed to promote physical activity, camaraderie and fellowship – all critical parts of the healing process.

“The athletes will learn skills that will enable them to be highly successful not only at the trials and games but in their future endeavors,” said Jennifer Sullivan, who manages the regiment’s Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program.

The 50 Marines who are selected to represent the Marine Corps will compete against the Army, Navy/Coast Guard and Special Operations teams at the 2013 Warrior Games, scheduled for May 11-17 at the U.S. Olympic Complex and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The weekend’s events are open to the public and free to attend.

“Americans do it right,” Germany coach Michael Weiger said at the 2012 Marine Corps Trials. “Troops are finding support by their families, by the communities and volunteers who are doing this mostly on their own expense. That is a real good morale booster. There are other countries [that] sure can learn from it.”

—Story by Joseph A. Lee, USO staff writer

You can sponsor athletes through a donation to USO San Diego. Click here for more information.

What’s in a Name?

NATHANS PIC

James Nathaniel Richards

A name is something that you get from your Mom and Dad.

It is something you hear when your teacher calls on you. You hear it when your brothers or sister want help with a chore or they want you to do something. You definitely hear it when you did something that was not good.

“James Nathaniel Richards!!”

You don’t realize how important it is till you miss hearing someone call it. My Dad has been deployed for almost a month. I would really like to hear him.

My sister, Bella, and I take turns getting the mail.

You are thinking, “no big deal,” but we live almost a mile from our mailbox. It is up and down a big hill, so when I went to the mail box and opened it up I was really excited.

There it was: My name!

It was on a big package letter. My excitement went up to Jupiter. Bella and I opened it up.

Wow, it was a book! I love to read. It was a birthday book which was good because it was Bella’s birthday and my Mom’s. The best part was inside the package was a disk with my Dad reading the book. Well, actually a couple of books.

He said my name!!

It sounded really good. You don’t know how important your name is till someone you miss says it! He read the stories before he left and United Through Reading® sent them to us. I think I am going to ask Ms. Diane [from the USO] if I can read my Dad some stories. It is a program they have for parents and kids so you can stay n touch and hear your name!

You can get the info at your USO or online.  I can’t believe we didn’t do this all the other times he was on deployment. Maybe I can read him the newspaper with all the Super Bowl news, or a book.

My mom got me the one about the boy whose Dad died in 9/11, where he left his kid a message. Or maybe I could read him an easy book so Bella could help. I don’t think it will matter what I read to him. I think that he probably be happy to hear me say his name.

So what is in a name? I guess it depends on who says it and how much you hear them say it.

So go say my name Dad!

Story written by Nate-the-Great—A Military Brat
a 9-year-old blogger whose father is in the Navy.  Follow, like and share Nate’s blog about life as a military brat by navigating to http://natethegreatamilitarybrat.wordpress.com. United Through Reading’s Military Program can be found at more than 130 Command locations worldwide and more than 70 USO host locations. — Edited by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer.

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Nine-year-old USO volunteer Nathan Richards gets an autograph from Joe Townsend, a British Royal Marine after a track and field medal ceremony where Townsend took Gold in the 100m. Richards' mother, Lorraine, is one of dozens of volunteers from USO San Diego who supported the 2012 Marine Corps Trials in February.