Competition, Reflection at the National Wheelchair Games

At this week's 27th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Milwaukee, many of the growing number of recently disabled vets are enthusiastically taking to the competitive field. These young vets are also quick to criticize the wars that have served to reinvigorate these games. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up: Writing a real-life character for film and playing one, too. But first, as more severely wounded troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, rehabilitation specialists are encouraging them to be active by playing sports.

At the 27th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games taking place this week in Milwaukee, many of the growing number of recently disabled vets are taking the advice seriously.

Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH: About 600 veterans have signed up for this summer's wheelchair games. At least two dozen of the athletes served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of those vets are showing a youthful competitive spark.

Unidentified Man: What a play by the Operation: Iraqi Freedom veteran from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Alan Lewis.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIRMBACH: At a wheelchair basketball scrimmage, 26-year-old Army vet Alan Lewis forces his way down the lane and scores a basket. Four years ago, a landmine in Iraq cost Lewis both of his legs below the knees. But Lewis says he's trying to show he still loves to compete.

Mr. ALAN LEWIS (U.S. Army Veteran, Milwaukee, Wisconsin): This is my life now and this is how I have to adjust to it and, you know, to continue to be competitive and still had that fire inside of me and keep burning it.

QUIRMBACH: Some of the newer competitors in the wheelchair games are female. Forty-seven women - a new high - are signed up. At the bowling alley, 37-year-old Army vet Deborah Dones of Puerto Rico reacts to missing some pins.

(Soundbite of bowling)

QUIRMBACH: Dones was hurt during training in Iraq and now only has partial use of her legs. But she hopes more injured women vets enter sports competitions.

Ms. DEBORAH DONES (U.S. Army Veteran, Carolina, Puerto Rico): Some women got injury in the Army. They got like scare if somebody is going to hurt them, in the sports, no. Whatever you want or you can do, you can do it in the games.

QUIRMBACH: That's the kind of enthusiasm embraced by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which helps stage the wheelchair games. V.A. Secretary Jim Nicholson says with more vets coming back injured from Iraq and Afghanistan, the new competitors are challenging the older ones.

Mr. JIM NICHOLSON (Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs): Well, some of these guys have been around here for years doing this of seeing these new young athletes coming in, and so the competition level here has greatly stepped up as a result of these young veterans.

QUIRMBACH: But while many here seem to enjoy the competition and the camaraderie, some of these young vets are quick to criticize the wars that have served to reinvigorate these games.

Mr. ROBERTO CRUZ (U.S. Army Veteran, Tampa, Florida): Mark! mark.

Unidentified Woman: All right.

QUIRMBACH: Army vet Roberto Cruz of Tampa, Florida, is taking part in the discus competition. Cruz was shot by a sniper in Iraq two years ago and has only limited use of his legs. He said he doesn't like to hear talk that newly wounded vets improve the sporting events.

Mr. CRUZ: It will bother me that people will say that like it's better because this is going to bring like more competitors. I just want this war to be stopped, you know, because a lot of new guys, young guys, young kids and everybody is getting killed and dying for nothing over there.

QUIRMBACH: Veterans administration officials are quick to say they have nothing to do with war policy. But the agency says if need be, future National Veterans Wheelchair Games will accommodate significantly more wounded U.S. military personnel.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

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