This year marked the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games—the largest games yet, with over 650 men and women competing in softball, quad rugby, basketball, power soccer, and other events in Philadelphia and South Jersey.
I had the opportunity to attend part of the games a few weeks ago and see firsthand not only the prowess of the athletes, but also the dedication and enthusiasm of the fans and volunteers to make it happen—and, most important, help these heroes on their rehabilitation journey.
Support from the US. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for wheelchair sports dates back to the 1940s, I learned that day, when disabled World War II vets played wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals nationwide.
Forty years later, the VA established the Recreation Therapy Service, which strengthened support for the rehabilitative qualities of wheelchair athletics. The first games were held a year later, with 74 veterans from 14 states facing off in numerous sporting events. Support from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) since 1985 and participation of British military veterans in the Games since 1987 helped fuel the game’s increasing popularity and help make it what it is today: the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world.
This year, the aptly-named theme was “Philly: Where Heroes Make History."
Some of the week’s volunteers came from Penn Medicine, including physicians, nurses, and other hospital staff, and students from Penn Medicine’s High School pipeline program.
“There was such a positive energy—smiles on everyone,” said Nora Brennan, BSN, RN, CHFN, a primary care connector nurse at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, whose husband served as a U.S. Marine and whose nephew served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a great city to explore, we have so much to offer in history, medicine, and other areas—these guests should see that.”
Brennan seized the opportunity to give back, volunteering at the durable medical equipment room, the hospitality table, and Kids' Day. On top of those duties, she was one of thousands of fans in the stands at many events, including awards ceremonies and basketball. “I loved everything about it,” said Brennan. “It was extra special for me.”
At the durable medical equipment room, Brennan gave athletes supplies they needed during their hotel stay – including benches, commodes, shower chairs, and CPAP supplies. A lot of hotel rooms were made handicap accessible for the event.
Brennan was also a strong ambassador at the hospitality table, navigating visitors and encouraging them to see those popular Philadelphia sites.
Brennan particularly enjoyed volunteering at Kids Day, in which kids who are disabled competed against each other in basketball, t-ball, and other events. The kids were also assigned a medal winner mentor to cheer them on along the way.
I helped organize the boccia event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center—where many of the events were held. Although very similar in strategy to the game bocce, boccia is traditionally played indoors with a few different rules of play. While keeping score, I admired the tremendous focus of these athletes amidst the roaring crowd of fans a few yards away cheering on those participating in the weightlifting event.
For Bob Askey, a program support assistant at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center (VAMC) and 35-year U.S. Army veteran, the VA’s “Mission Re-Defined” definition says it all: it’s about veterans involved in adaptive sports as part of their rehabilitation.
“This was emphatically brought home for [Jennifer Askey] (a public affairs officer for the Philadelphia VAMC) and me when we returned to the hospital and ran into one of our veteran athletes, a novice to the Games, and his wife,” said Bob. “He was proudly wearing his medals and had been roaming the hospital talking to other veterans about his experience at the games and encouraging those of them in wheelchairs to think about going to Dallas with him in 2015.”
At this point, Bob added, the veteran’s wife started to choke up and said she would not have thought her husband would ever engage in anything like the games, let alone become an advocate for the opportunities they present.
Many participants employ some techniques they’ve performed during rehabilitation and physical therapy at VA hospitals during the competition, and use this as something to build on and continually challenge themselves to improve. The effect from achieving these successes helps veterans succeed in other aspects of their lives, Bob said.
For those of us who are not veterans, the Games are a vital reminder that the costs of war extend far beyond the battlefield. The event exemplifies our disabled veterans’ ability to triumph over adversity, and the importance of caring for those who have served in our nation’s military.