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Coming home: Disabled vets to compete in wheelchair games
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- After a roadside bomb exploded under his 5-ton truck in Iraq, Tyler Hall remembers an Army buddy asking if he was alive.
"I said, 'Of course I'm alive. Do you think I would die that easy?"' the former Army sergeant said.
The 25-year-old Hall will join hundreds of other disabled athletes starting today at the 26th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world. The six-day games will be held at various sites around Anchorage.
Hall lost his left leg but has refused to quit, especially when he knows fellow vets who were injured even more seriously in Iraq.
"You have to be thankful for what you do have," he said. "Maybe I lost a little bit, but it is more what you gain."
Wheelchair sports began after World War II, when young, disabled vets began playing wheelchair basketball in veterans hospitals throughout the United States. Seventy-four veterans participated in the first games in 1981 in Richmond, Va.
More than 550 athletes are signed up to compete this year, said Gary Pearson, president of the northwest chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which is co-hosting the games. The games are being sponsored by the PVA and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Pearson will be competing in some of his favorite sports, including the brutal game of quad rugby. Pearson, a 51-year-old former Coast Guard seaman from Seattle, broke his neck in 1973 when the driver of the van in which he was riding fell asleep.
Pearson said after the accident he was at home feeling sorry for himself when he was invited to a basketball tournament. The experience was an eye-opener.
"That was when I got involved in wheelchair sports," he said.
After one game, he and a buddy stopped by a pub where his friend started playing pool.
"I said 'Wow, that is a sport I can play with a walking guy on equal terms," said the wheelchair games' reigning 9-ball champion.
In quad rugby, Pearson's job is to open up the lane.
"The harder you can slam somebody the better, and if you can break a wheel or knock a person out of the chair, that is big-time kudos for a rugby player," he said. "It is a sport where you can go out and be as aggressive as all get-out."
Pearson said sports competition helps him feel connected.
"When you are in the service you tend to become pretty close to whomever you are working with because you have to depend on them and they depend on you," he said. "It is that type of feeling. There is so much camaraderie. You have people yelling for you that you have never met before, wishing you well. That goes a long way toward how you feel."
Hall, who was sitting next to a 150-gallon fuel tank when the bomb went off in August 2003, was the most seriously injured of the six soldiers in the truck.
Before being injured, he played football and basketball and liked to snowboard and bicycle. After being injured, he wasn't sure what he was going to be able to do.
"I was really depressed," he said.
He spent three months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to repair his broken back, reconstruct his face, apply skin grafts to his burned hands and amputate his left leg below the knee.
"I was worried that I would never live a normal life," he said.
Hall returned home in December 2003, and began walking and getting stronger and feeling better. This will be his first time competing in the wheelchair games, competing in javelin, bowling and air gun.
"I was definitely thinking about getting back into sports, getting back into life," Hall said. "I'm trying to live more of a life than just doing medical appointments."
John Bennett of Cascade, Mont., is a former Montana National Guard member who was shot by a sniper in Iraq in February 2005, north of Baghdad. The 34-year-old Bennett said he stepped out of his Humvee after hearing a popping sound and seeing a puff of smoke inside the vehicle.
That's when the bullet hit him, entering his right side. It took out his kidney, ricocheted off his spine and shattered a couple of vertebrae in his back before exiting his left side. He also spent six weeks at Walter Reed before going to Seattle for months of medical treatment.
Bennett, also participating in the games for the first time, plans to bring his wife, Dena, and their four children to Anchorage for the games. He's competing in bowling, basketball, shot put, javelin and the 100-meter wheelchair race.
"When I played, I played to win," Bennett said. "I love to compete and it gives me an opportunity to compete again."
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