Volunteers Add Healing Touch at USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va.

FORT BELVOIR, Va.-The USO Warrior and Family Center here serves a unique community, and couldn’t operate without a cadre of trained volunteers. The center caters to wounded, ill and injured troops and their caregivers and families recovering from both visible and invisible wounds of war.

“Our volunteers here are amazing,” said Pam Horton, Director of USO Warrior and Family Centers. “There is not a chance we could have done a tenth of what we’ve done if they hadn’t been here.”

The USO is proud to celebrate National Volunteer Week. Our 29,000-plus volunteers donate roughly 1.5 million hours of service each year. They’re the reason the service members and their families who walk through our doors more than 8 million times each year feel welcome.

A Critical 4th of July Mission

I need your help in a critical mission: equipping and supplying our USO Warrior and Family Center at Walter Reed Military Medical Center that’s currently under construction.

The brave troops who will use this wonderful, new center sacrificed so much for our country. We need to make sure they have everything they need to live comfortably during their recovery.

We only have until Ju‌ly 4‌th to raise the funds needed to bring this 16,217-square-foot center to life. I know we can get there but we need you to step up and lead today.

Give back to our wounded troops who’ve given so much to serve our nation. Make your “At One With The Wounded” donation today.

callout-large-v43Thousands of our young men and women are returning from war wounded, ill or injured, and you and the USO are there to comfort them from the moment they’re rushed to a field hospital and through every step of recovery as they prepare for the future.

For our wounded, their families and caregivers, our new center will be a place of healing and recuperation. It will offer every comfort they need, from comforting rest areas and recreation rooms to education centers designed specifically to be springboards to get our troops back to a full and rewarding life, which will help them face the challenges of recovery.

But as you can imagine, it takes a lot to get a state-of-the-art facility of this magnitude up and running. That’s why your participation in our “At One With The Wounded” campaign is absolutely vital.

Click here to make your “At One With The Wounded” donation right now.

Our wounded troops have laid it all on the line for our country. With Ju‌ly 4th fast approaching, I’m hoping you will show your respect for their sacrifices by making a matching gift to this very special effort.

- General Richard B. Myers, USAF (Ret.), Chairman of the Board, USO

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

Recovery from catastrophic injury takes time – and patience.

Image

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.

Image

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