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For Wounded Warriors, Adaptive Sports Bring Camaraderie and Confidence

Image of Military personnel with their service dogs during swim practice. Former Navy Musician 3rd Class Abbie Johnson pets her service dog Kona during swim practice at the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Milham).

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Abbie Johnson, a 32-year-old former Navy Musician 3rd Class from California, was suffering from at-times debilitating post-traumatic stress when she started distance running in 2014 and got involved in the Navy's Wounded Warrior program.

Her commitment to the program intensified over the next several years as she ran, biked and swam in several Ironman competitions. She won a state championship in cycling, and took part in the military's Warrior Games in 2016 and 2018.

Now, Johnson's next goal is to run marathons on all seven continents. She ran one on Antarctica in 2019 and hopes to finish up in Africa next year.

"Sports have really helped," Johnson said. "I just have found that setting goals and being active made my symptoms a lot better and just gives me motivation. It's really therapeutic."

The Wounded Warrior programs have been essential to helping her recover from her post-traumatic stress and regain her confidence.

"When I started out, I was a pretty good athlete, but when I got involved in the triathlons ... I never thought I'd be able to do any of this. I did not think that I'd have the endurance to compete in an Ironman."

People often talk about sports as an entertaining diversion. But at the Wounded Warrior level, sports that bring together veterans and can be adapted to accommodate disabilities are literally saving lives. And the sports and other adaptive activities are getting more widespread and popular each year.

"For the Department of Defense, the Warrior Games was really an introduction to some of those activities for servicemembers," said Sandra Mason, the Defense Health Agency's Warrior Care Recovery Coordination office program lead in Arlington, Virginia, which includes the Military Adaptive Sports Program, known as MASP.

"Throughout that process, the programs became more robust. And there was an intent to see what the service programs were providing in terms of adaptive activities and things that would help rehabilitate those that had been wounded, ill or injured."

But MASP "is so much more than sports, and the whole focus is your mind, your body, and your spiritual wellness," Mason said. "It's from a holistic perspective, but also looking at it like, "What would you like to do?" because there are some individuals who are naturally very good athletes. Even having a disability didn't stop them. But what about those individuals that are just seeking to do better, to have a healthier lifestyle, to reacclimate themselves to some type of normal activities? So, they'll get involved in the [other] aspect in things like art therapy, or music therapy, or things like meditation or yoga."

Service members must be medically cleared to participate in any given sport, she said. "There is an intent there to look at the service member from not only the physical perspective but occupational and mental health," Mason said.

Many people have no discernible physical injury but rather have "invisible wounds" such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mason said.

Military personnel during the 2019 Warrior Games
U.S. Army Spc. Brent Garlic at MacDill Air Force Base during the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games, conducted by Special Operations Command, Tampa, Florida (U.S Army photo by PFC Dominique Dixon).

There are also specialized versions of weight lifting and rowing, among other individual sports that can be adapted for those with disabilities and contribute to their quality of life. Many of the efforts are aimed at getting servicemembers "off the couch."

Transitioning out of the military is especially life-changing for these types of athletes because that is not how they imagined their life to be, Mason said. "Naturally you will encounter some folks with depression and / or any other mental health issues. This is one way to keep them involved, and keep them focused on what is that next chapter in their lives."

Family members and caregivers contribute to the effort as well, Mason said. Participants who don't return to their units often find careers outside the military in adaptive sports, she said, as trainers or coaches. Some dedicate themselves to their sports to such an extent that they become Paralympians.

Intra-service camaraderie

Johnson was in the Navy for four years, from 2012 to 2016. Since leaving the service and getting more involved in the Warrior Games program, Johnson said she's established relationships with people from all the services, and has competed against teams from Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and other international squads. Once, while still on active duty and stationed in Hawaii, she traveled to West Point, New York, for the 2016 games.

Johnson later became a surfing coach with another veterans' service organization. She said she is inspired watching other athletes with lower-limb loss, blindness, or people with "paralysis who are out there crushing it on hand bikes."

And she very much agrees with Mason about the camaraderie shared.

"Many will tell you about just how having that opportunity to develop a skill in a sport that they once thought they'd lost, or the camaraderie of being with other individuals," is lifesaving, Johnson said. "Even with competing service members, there is still a very large camaraderie among the military services."

Her initial, strong performance in her first Warrior Games "showed me that I'm strong, and showed me that if I work hard and consistently, that I can do things that I didn't think I could a few years ago," she added.

"It's a really, really empowering feeling, especially when I felt so down and so broken when I was going through my sexual assault process in the military."

For extra support for her condition, Johnson also has Kona, her golden retriever service dog. She got Kona out of desperation, and before her involvement in adaptive sports. "He was kind of my lifeline for a while," she said.

She calls her long runs "very meditative," and her other training to be something of a substitute for the many years of training to be a musician playing the flute and piccolo. Going through the worst of her PTSD, she experienced breathing difficulties and panic attacks. It was then that she truly started to lean on her Wounded Warrior community.

"Having somebody reach out to me that could help me when I was really suffering ... having these programs in place when people are kind of at their worst, when they need the most help, is really important," Johnson said.

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