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

Presenter Encourages Military Caregivers to Promote Positive Emotions

According to Steve Shenbaum, the root causes of video game addiction aren’t that complicated.

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Steve Shenbaum, founder and president of game on Nation, speaks Monday at the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif. USO photo by Michael Clifton

It seemed like an odd thing to bring up in front of a room full of military caregivers, but Shenbaum was on the way to a powerful point: the lessons we can take from knowing why kids spend hours mashing buttons in front of televisions can be applied successfully major life endeavors like fortifying relationships in times of stress.

Shenbaum is the founder and president of game on Nation, a firm specializing in communication, leadership, character development and media training. He traveled to the USO Caregivers Conference at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Monday to talk to a room full of spouses, parents and devoted friends who play crucial roles in the care of their wounded, ill and injured loved ones.

His theory is that video games enthrall people because they satisfy four emotional cravings: empowerment, mystery, competition and humor.

“As we interact with people, I think it’s important to show [we care] before we say it,” he said.

Shenbaum spent the rest of his time showing the caregivers in the audience how they could target those four cravings to grow their relationship with their recovering family members by providing interactions where those same emotions were experienced. He engaged in roleplaying with the audience in games like “Expert Speaker” – an fun routine where both participants built confidence through boastful banter – and “Dimmer Switch,” where participants practice ramping their mood up and down to accommodate certain situations.

By the time he finished, Shenbaum had passed on several tips on how to help navigate the stressful caregiver lifestyle.

“As a caregiver, too, a lot of times, you’re the pilot,” he said. “And we don’t want pilots to say ‘I hope we get there.’”

–Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

A New Center For Our Warriors

The Sports Lounge in the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir is almost ready for our wounded troops and their caregivers and families to enjoy.

The Sports Lounge in the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir is almost ready for our wounded troops and their caregivers and families to enjoy.

More than 40,000 troops have been visibly wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 troops suffer from invisible wounds, like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. In addition, the Pentagon said the military reached a record high of 349 suicides in 2012, highlighting the need for increased mental and emotional care for America’s returning troops. While these numbers are upsetting, we have to face the fact that returning troops need us now more than ever. It is a particularly important time for recovering troops to have a stress-free and supportive environment as they heal and reintegrate into civilian life.

Since 1941, the USO has been there for our troops. As we continue to adapt to meet the needs of our military and their loved ones, we are thrilled to open the doors to a new center – designed especially for our recovering troops, their families and caregivers – in just a few days.

Located steps away from the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., will offer activities for recovering troops, their families and caregivers that will help them relax, have fun and reintegrate into society. Specifically, the programs and classes offered will align with the USO’s Continuum of Care. The center will have programmatic offerings in the areas of physical health and recreation, family strengthening, behavioral health, employment, education and community reintegration. Inside the center, guests will have access to more than 20 areas, including a movie theater, respite suite, sports lounge, business center, music room and a healing garden outdoors.

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The Game Room will be a place for recovering troops to relax and enjoy the latest games with state-of-the-art video game consoles and screens.


During the difficult journey toward recovery, this center will be a place for support, relaxation, a peaceful environment for families to come together and an opportunity to prepare for a fulfilling and happy life ahead. Men and women dealing with the aftermath of deployment can learn how to transition into a new and different role, find hope and embrace the change. Like all USO centers, the mission remains the same – to lift the spirits of America’s troops and their families.

A second USO Warrior and Family Center is currently being constructed at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and is scheduled for completion in early 2014. The Warrior and Family Centers at Fort Belvoir and in Bethesda are possible because of the USO’s Operation Enduring Care campaign and our generous volunteers. We could not do this without you! – Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Eight New USO Wishbook Gifts

What’s new for the USO Wishbook this year? We have eight new gift options for you to choose from!

Flight Home Comfort Kit
For $60, make the trip home a bit more comfortable for wounded troops by helping to provide blankets and airplane pillows.

Run a Day Room for a Month
For $1,500 you can foot the bill for one of Afghanistan’s Warrior Day Rooms that give wounded ill or injured troops a refuge from the frontlines to heal.

Writing the Right Resume
For just $150, help Hire Heroes USA & the USO in our efforts to provide wounded, ill & injured troops with resumes & practice interviews that helps them to best represent their military skills & experience as they transition to the civilian sector.

Help Wounded Troops Navigate Their New Normal
$1,000 will assist the USO and AspenPointe Peer Navigator as it facilitates mentorship between community leaders and returning wounded troops.

Relaunch a Troop’s Career
With Career Opportunity Days, wounded, ill and injured troops are given guidance to secure jobs as they reintegrate into the private sector. Help for $250.

Give a Getaway to a Healing Family
Help fund retreat programs for $750 with the USO and TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) to organize getaways designed to mend families after trauma and tragedy.

Send a Military Child to Camp
Unique camps provide military children from families of the fallen or kids who have recuperating parents with getaways designed to focus on their well-being. Send a child for $500.

Keep USO Mobile on the Go
Keep USO Mobile rolling with a $500 contribution that allows the wheeled USO supply center on the road, supporting stateside troops at events and military installations.

Wounded Veteran Receives Home Makeover With Help From USO

The Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team presented the Harris family with a new, state-of-the-art house that helps wounded veteran Shilo Harris lead a more comfortable and enjoyable life. Photo courtesy of the Harris family

On February 19, 2007, while on patrol in Iraq, a massive IED struck the truck that SSG Shilo Harris was traveling in. Despite suffering devastating injuries, with burns to over 40% of his body, Shilo’s only concern was for the wellbeing of the men under his command, refusing medical treatment until he’d been assured that his troops were out of harm’s way. During the months of painful surgeries that followed, Shilo and his loyal wife, Kathreyn, found a true calling — to help wounded warriors through the agonizing and traumatic processes of recovery, rehabilitation and learning to face a life that will never be the same. Shilo, once sufficiently healed, began a career as a motivational speaker, giving hope to others similarly wounded, while Kathreyn, taking up the cause as well, began working for the Army Wounded Warrior Project. Shilo and Kathreyn have dedicated their lives to giving back.

With each day that passes the Harris family put more distance between themselves and the event that changed their lives, but their home still stands as a reminder of their struggles, as it cannot protect Shilo from dangerous dust and heat. The family have tried everything to make the home comfortable and safe, but whatever they do, it’s not enough. This hero who was disfigured in service to his country cannot find respite in his own home.

Tonight on ABC at 8:00 PM EST, watch as the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” team changes all of that, with help from the USO.

Will You Join Them?

On Monday, we launched an effort to bring critical year-end support to our troops, especially those who have been wounded, ill or injured. The response has been truly amazing and inspiring.

Thousands of people are coming together to take care of these brave men and women who are just starting their road to recovery. I hope you will join with other USO supporters and make your special year-end donation today.

Please, make your year-end USO donation today to support our troops on the frontlines and all the brave wounded, ill and injured troops recovering here at home.

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This campaign isn’t just about bringing support to the wounded, ill and injured. It’s also about honoring a special request from our troops on the frontlines and in forward operating bases all around the world.

When we ask them what we can do to help, their first answer is always: Take care of my friends who have been wounded.

So, when you give today, you’re honoring the service and sacrifice of our active troops and helping support those who are wounded, ill and injured.

Donate today to help the USO’s effort to bring support to our wounded troops and provide ongoing care for our troops on the frontlines.

I’ve been so encouraged by the way USO supporters like you have stepped up to be there for our troops at this time of year. And I thank you for lending your personal support to this campaign today. – Sloan Gibson, President and CEO, USO