Special Spring Moments at the USO

USO Helps 2 Deployed Soldiers Witness Birth of Sons via Skype

AFGHANISTAN–USO Bagram had the special pleasure of helping two soldiers welcome their baby boys into the world this week via Skype!

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Spc. Kaznica and his wife welcomed their 7-pound, 14-ounce baby boy.

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Pfc. McElroy and his wife welcomed their 8 -pound son, Evan.

Spc. Kaznica, left, and his wife welcomed their 7-pound, 14-ounce baby boy and Pfc. McElroy, right, and his wife welcomed their 8-pound son, Evan. Both babies and both moms are doing well and the dads couldn’t be any prouder! The USO congratulates the Kaznica and McElroy families!

 

Mobile USO Deploys, Supplies Refreshments to Air Force Trials

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Wounded warriors came together April 7-11 to compete at the inaugural Air Force trials competition at the Warrior Fitness Center and USO volunteers were there to supply an oasis of refreshments and support.

The trials are an adaptive sports camp used to identify which athletes will be selected as members of the Air Force Warrior Games team and compete against other military branches in September. Athletes competed in seven different events including archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, shooting, wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball.

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USO, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Host game on Nation

On April 18, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the USO hosted Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Tommy Mazzone and other high-ranking officials from MacDill Air Force Base for a game on Nation seminar at One Buccaneer Place. The seminar focused on leadership, teamwork and communication. Watch the clip now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ website. 

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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

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 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

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.