Army Sgt. Cherry Maurice gets a thrill each time she blows by a milestone in her physical recovery from the grinding spinal injuries that left her almost paralyzed three years ago.
“A lot of people said you’re never going to walk again. I love to prove them wrong,” said Maurice, 38.
That spirit on Tuesday led the Afghanistan veteran to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where she joined about 120 other wounded, ill and injured military service members for a week of athletic competitions meant to speed up their healing.
The Air Force brought them together for a so-called “wounded warrior care” event. This one is the Air Force’s first in the Northwest and its first to weave in career counseling to help troops get a good start in the civilian world after they leave the Armed Forces.
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If all goes as planned, the military service members will leave town this weekend feeling better and inspired by each other to overcome new obstacles.
“The core value of these events is that you connect with other service members who share the same challenges, struggles, mind-sets that you do,” said retired Air Force Maj. Matthew Clough, 45, who is participating in his second round of wounded warrior competitions.
“You see someone like you do something you didn’t think you could do, and it’s infectious,” said Clough, who lives in Richmond, Virginia.
The special services provided to wounded and ill troops at JBLM this week are similar to ones offered at the base’s Warrior Transition Battalion. That Army unit has operated at JBLM since 2007, focusing on soldiers recovering from long-term illnesses and injuries.
Those units, as well as the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, were formed at the height of the Iraq War to improve care for troops coming home with battle injuries.
Today, now that the pace of the wars has slowed, 60 percent of troops in the Air Force program are there for non-combat injuries or illnesses. The Army, meanwhile, is closing and consolidating some of its warrior transition units.
This week’s Air Force event pulled troops from many backgrounds and states. The group had cancer survivors, amputees and people suffering from long-term injuries caused by car accidents.
Some of them admitted that they struggled with being told that their injuries would prevent from them from serving in the military.
“It was harder than you can possibly imagine,” said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jimmy Counts of Columbia, South Carolina. He suffered a head injury from a mortar in 2002 and another injury that crushed his forearm in 2010. He didn’t join a wounded a warrior program until 2014.
“You work for a quarter of a century to achieve a goal, and you have that goal. You’re in a position of influence and you can do some good for airmen. Then you lose it. It really plays with your mind,” he said.
Clough and Maurice learned they were slowed by similar injuries. Both served in Afghanistan in 2011-12, and both experienced long-term damage to their spines from hauling heavy equipment on a combat tour.
“This is a growing need,” Clough said about the adaptive sports offered at JBLM. “It’s not going away.”
Some of the participants rarely get opportunities to spend time with other military service members.
One of them was Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Melinda Smith, who was paralyzed for three months last year after multiple sclerosis suddenly set in during her deployment to Qatar. She lives in Pittsburgh with her three children and takes care of her recovery mostly on her own.
Earlier this summer, Smith joined other troops in Colorado for a week of outdoor activities. They rode horses, went fly-fishing and shimmied up a tall platform to ride a zip-line.
Smith still is partially paralyzed on one side, but made it up to the zip line with encouragement from a double amputee.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Smith, 41.
She also had more fun than she expected riding horses.
“I’m not a horse person,” she said. “I fell in love with my horse.”
The JBLM activities kicked off Tuesday morning with a short ceremony followed by a day of training for different adaptive sports. Participants received coaching in cycling, swimming, shooting, basketball, volleyball and track events. They’ll pick sports they like best and compete later this week.
Maurice, who is stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, buckled into a handcycle for the first time. She pushed herself around a track with the three-wheeled bike, breaking into a full sweat after a couple hundred yards.
Then, on her right side, another wounded warrior whipped past her. It was retired Air Force Master Sgt. Patrick Bowman, who was injured badly when a blood vessel burst in his brain three years ago. Today, he struggles to talk and has limited movement.
He was helped by a wounded warrior program staff member, who sprinted behind Bowman’s cycle, pushing him until Bowman edged ahead of Maurice.
“Someone cheated,” Maurice teased him when she crossed the finish line.
No, Bowman said playfully, “someone cheated to overcome.”
Maurice plans to compete in the hand-cycle later this week. She’ll be tougher on cheaters when the races count.
“It makes me feel like I can do anything,” she said.