University of Texas at Arlington hosts 27 injured soldiers for wheelchair basketball

ARLINGTON -- The coach called out instructions. Players broke into groups on the gym floor, then worked on passing, defending and setting up shots.

"That's it, that's it!" University of Texas at Arlington coach Doug Garner shouted after a drill. "Good job, good job!"

But one telltale sound was missing from this basketball practice: the squeak of sneakers on the court.

Instead of their feet, these 27 players -- injured soldiers from bases in Europe and the continental U.S. -- used wheelchairs. Many had lost a leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq. All were part of an Army program that uses sports to help the wounded prepare to return to civilian life, said Maj. Christopher Cooper, chief of the adaptive sports branch of the Warrior Transition Command, based in Arlington, Va.

Most of the troops working out at UTA on Friday and Saturday hope to make next year's Army team for the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo. The games pit teams of injured members from each of the four service branches against one another in such events as sitting volleyball, archery, swimming, shooting and, of course, wheelchair basketball.

The soldiers visiting UTA had been recommended for the program by their commands.

"Several of them are athletes," Cooper said, looking out over the court, where long-limbed, muscular troops were easy to pick out.

Garner, who leads UTA's national powerhouse Movin' Mavs wheelchair basketball team, spent the weekend helping them get ready. As one of the sport's top coaches, he had been recommended to the Army by the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2010 Warrior Games, the first ever.

"This year, the Marines won, and the Army wasn't very happy about that," Garner said.

Cooper acknowledged that, noting that the Army won silver despite having never practiced together. "We're looking forward to getting out there and competing again," he said. "Our goal next year is to win gold."

Gaining confidence

First and foremost, however, the adaptive sports program is designed to give soldiers who have sacrificed their bodies for their country the confidence to move forward with their lives, said Master Sgt. James Shiver, the Army's liaison for the Warrior Games.

"I think anytime you challenge somebody and they overcome that challenge, the confidence they gain from that spills over in other areas of life," he said. "They may think about going back to college or getting a more professional type of job."

The Army has 29 Warrior Transition Units, which are tied to military bases. Fort Hood near Killeen and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio are the closest to North Texas. Those are for the most seriously injured soldiers who still need constant medical care, Shiver said.

In addition, there are nine Community Based Warrior Transition Units nationwide. They provide services for soldiers who have recovered enough to go home.

After troops leave the military, the Army Wounded Warrior program provides an advocate for them regarding benefits.

Commands at each level had a chance to send players for this weekend's clinics and games, Shiver said.

'Just amazing'

The players say the program has been an invaluable part of their recovery.

Spc. Craig Smith, who lost a leg to an IED in Iraq on April 5, 2009, was on the runner-up team at this year's games. Before he could think about returning to playing ball, however, he had to deal with the psychological effects of his injury.

"At first, I didn't think I'd be able to do the things I used to," he said. "But the coaches and other players showed me there's a different way of doing things. It gave me a reason to keep going. By yourself, it's hard to stay motivated."

For Sgt. 1st Class Brock Strickland, the camaraderie means as much as anything. Strickland, from the Army garrison in Schweinfurt, Germany, suffered a concussive brain injury when U.S. airstrikes took out buildings embedded with IEDs in Iraq in January 2008. As the gunner riding above the hatch in his armored vehicle, he was the only exposed member of his squad.

Being with the others in the program "shows me that you're not limited by your disability," he said. "Nobody knew each other before. But from Day One, it's been like we've known each other forever. It's something that you can't find anywhere else."

Staff Sgt. Christopher McCord Sr. had an altogether different perspective. The Ohio native based at Fort Jackson, S.C., suffered a severe ankle injury in Iraq in June, but he expects to recover.

"I think this program is just amazing," he said. "My hat's off to them. Knowing that I'll walk again, just being a part of this has humbled me. This is a big deal. It's a real big deal."

'A huge honor'

Garner, a former assistant under the late Movin' Mavs founder and longtime coach Jim Hayes, was happy to host the troops.

"This is a good way of getting them on a college campus and helping them with the transition," he had said before practice Saturday. "And I can recruit new players for my team."

For four hours over two days, he taught them the fundamentals of wheelchair basketball. At one point Saturday, he demonstrated to a player that he shouldn't try to defend with his wheelchair pointed straight at the ball handler.

"That's going to get you a lot of fouls," Garner said, turning the defender's wheelchair sideways.

The players also competed against one another in the afternoons. On Saturday, an all-star team was set to take on the Movin' Mavs.

Their progress impressed even longtime wheelchair users.

UTA graduate student Tyler Garner, who was born with spina bifida and won a national championship with the Movin' Mavs under Hayes, helped his father run the drills.

"It's a huge honor to be able to give back to these guys," he said.

Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423