UTA does its part for wounded warriors

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Medically retired Army Sgt. Charles Hightower refused to let combat injuries he sustained in Iraq — and other wounds he received after returning home — keep him from playing basketball.

“I didn’t just sit on my butt,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to make it, to be better than what I was. If I can’t be better physically, I’ll be better mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

Hightower passed that philosophy on to dozens of fellow veterans and active-duty service members Wednesday — the fun day of a four-day quarterly muster of the Community-Based Warrior Transition Unit/Arkansas. The organization — part of the Army’s Warrior Transition Command — brought wounded, injured and ill soldiers from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma to the University of Texas at Arlington for experiences designed to help them transition from overseas deployments and reconnect with their families and communities.

“They find a new normal,” said Susan Wilson, site coordinator for Fort Hood’s adaptive reconditioning program, a Texas affiliate of the Warrior Transition Command.

Wilson had just finished a session with soldiers who were still sweaty from playing wheelchair basketball, seated volleyball, wheelchair tennis or fencing. They sat around a table sipping water as Wilson explained the rules of a dice game that she said can be as important as the sports.

“We try to get soldiers in transition to participate in five hours of activities a week,” she said.

The soldiers can take what they learn back home and play with their kids, their spouses and their friends, or reintegrate into their communities, Wilson said.

“It’s not just playing games,” she said. “It’s the social aspect.”

The greatest value the program can give to soldiers is the certainty that they can be active again, just by doing things differently, said Doug Garner, coach of UTA’s wheelchair basketball team.

“It’s all about using sports to help transition and reintegrate back into society,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to do wheelchair basketball than to do five minutes on a treadmill followed by 10 minutes on a bench press. These sports and activities can take the place of or supplement traditional rehabilitation programs.”

National Guard Major Andrew White said that activities he was introduced to by Warrior Transition musters have brought him back almost to the condition he was in before a serious, albeit noncombat, accident broke two vertebrae in his back.

“This one day out of the whole conference builds morale and challenges us,” said White, who lives in Plano. “At the last muster we had people from the Texas Archery Academy. I ended up joining the club in Plano and I go three times a week with my family.”

Counselors from Texas Woman’s University also helped out. Michelle Enos, TWU’s project coordinator for Injured Veterans Entering Sport Training, helped cut T-shirts into strips that were used to blindfold players in the game of Goalball. The game is designed to even the playing field for sight-impaired athletes.

Teams of three face one another across a 90-foot-long court and — with blindfolds in place — try to roll balls that emit a ringing sound past their opponents and into their goals.

“The faster they make the balls go, the less noise they make,” Enos said. “There’s skill involved.”

TWU’s involvement with Warrior Transition is funded by federal grants, Enos said, but it’s powered by her group’s dedication to help heroes overcome whatever impedes them.

“From here, when they return to their units or their homes, they have to find it in themselves to find a way to continue competing in something, even if it’s just going to a local VA and interacting with other veterans,” she said.

Those who live in or close to Arlington are lucky, said Darlene Hunter, Texas Paralympics regional coordinator.

“The whole initiative here at UTA is to get people active again,” she said. “This is our third muster in the past year and a half.”

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