U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- As the sun sets behind the Colorado Springs mountaintops, the flame lit ceremoniously a week earlier to signify the official start of the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games is extinguished, bringing to close the eighth annual iteration of the Games on June 9.
Wounded warrior athletes representing the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, as well as athletes from the U.K. Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, and Canadian Armed Forces, listen as the Air Force’s Vice Chief of Staff addresses the crowd.
“If we measure success by the lives saved, the steps forward you have taken, and the inspiration you’ve given to everyone here, I’d say these Games have been absolutely, unbelievably successful,” Gen. Stephen W. Wilson told the athletes.
Quoting President George Washington, Wilson continued, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
The Warrior Games, he notes, are one way the U.S. military attempts to live up to those words and ideals.
“Our task is to carry on maintaining that commitment to our service members, veterans and military families, with the relentless effort, teamwork, esprit de corps, network, hope, healing and grit you all exhibited here, that we witnessed all week,” he concludes.
The final countdown
The atmosphere at the closing ceremony is festive. Athletes dressed in their team colors can be seen talking animatedly with one another, and passing out hugs and high-fives to their families, friends, coaches, and caregivers.
The ceremony comes on the heels of the Games’ wheelchair basketball championship, where the Air Force was edged out by the Army, finishing second place in the tournament.
The Air Force team performed admirably at this year’s Games.
Its wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball teams advanced to the final round of play in both sports, while Air Force track and field athletes Senior Airman Brent Campfield, Senior Airman Heather Carter, Master Sgt. Ken Guinn, Capt. Rob Hufford II and Lt. Col. Julie Walker all broke Warrior Games records in their respective events. Senior Airman Rafael Morfinencisco and Maj. Stacie Shafran, who competed in eight sporting events each, were two of only seven athletes named “ultimate champions,” a title awarded based on their cumulative performances at the Games.
By week’s end, the Air Force’s 39 athletes amassed a combined 165 medals, including 70 gold, 56 silver, and 39 bronze.
Competing to win?
For many members of Team Air Force, though, success at the Games was not defined by their place on the awards podium.
“We come here, not just to compete, but to heal and learn, and we stay for other people’s stories. From that, we’re able to go back to our bases and actually be advocates for healing and recovering,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Novak, a munitions and missile maintenance officer serving as an aerospace ground equipment flight commander at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
Novak, who suffers from a spinal cord injury, competed in archery, cycling, swimming and track during the Games.
“Many of us go back, and we’re there to cheer on our own service members who are going through their own issues and help them,” he explained. “It’s about walking away and being a better person, not just physically and mentally, but also being a better leader.”
And like Novak, Air Force guardsman Master Sgt. John Angel Jr., didn’t just compete for himself; he came to help others.
“Less than a year ago, I didn’t think I could do this, but here I am,” he said. “It means the world to me. It’s lit a spark and fixed up my self-esteem.”
Angel is on medical hold and currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’m a wounded warrior with invisible wounds,” he added. “I hope in some way I can inspire others to take part in this.’
A family affair
While the Games were focused on the athletes, and their incredible experiences and accomplishments, they also provided an opportunity to recognize the dedication and support of the athletes’ family members and close friends.
These caregivers have made their own sacrifices to help wounded warrior athletes with their recovery efforts and athletic achievements.
Angel, who competed in the indoor rowing and archery competitions, was accompanied at the Games by his wife, Christy. Of helping care for her husband, she said, “It’s actually an honor; I get to take care of, not just my husband, but a service member who has given up a lot in sacrifice for our country.”
“To have him here still is a blessing,” she added. “I have to take care of him 24/7, but, you know what? You marry them for better or worse, in sickness or in health, in my eyes. I like standing by his side.”
Shawn Sprayberry, who has been the communications program manager for the Air Force Wounded Warrior program since 2015, has witnessed firsthand the impact spouses and family members can have on an athlete’s recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration process.
“It can be a huge role. And it can be crushing to those caregivers, because they go from being a spouse to a caregiver, and that’s a huge adjustment,” Sprayberry said. “But, caregivers are – for those warriors who have them, they’re vital.”
Wingmen for life
Another key player in the success of the Air Force team that competed in the Games this year was the staff of AFW2.
Every Air Force athlete who participated in the Games is enrolled in the program, which begins by identifying an Airman’s condition and continues through their stabilization or resolution.
“The moment someone is wounded, ill or injured, and they are identified – from the moment they are in our hands, we advocate for them,” Sprayberry said.
AFW2 strives to provide well-coordinated, personalized support to every Airman in the program, which incorporates adaptive sports and reconditioning activities that promote healing.
Air Force wounded warriors who competed in the Games worked with expert coaches, sports trainers and nutritionists for months in advance to prepare.
Though the AFW2 program supports its members in a myriad of ways, watching the Air Force athletes arrive and compete in the Games is the single most important experience the staff has, said Sprayberry.
“When we come out to the Games and see these warriors, we can see the nervousness – but as soon as they start winning, competing and bonding with other warriors, it takes all of that away,” he said. “And when you see that happen, nothing can compare.”