Disabled Iraq vets compete to win

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) – With a row of American flags flapping nearby in the morning breeze, Scott Winkler takes a deep breath, closes his eyes for a second or two, then begins twisting his massive upper body this way and that, all the while clasping a flying saucer-like object in his right hand.

“Ahhhhhh!” Winkler screams when he finally unleashes the discus, which soars some 90 feet against a gray sky before dropping into a field that is part grass, part weeds and crawling with ants. It lands with a thud, kicking up a bit of dirt.

“Nice throw, Scott,” someone says.

Winkler responds with the slightest of smiles, then lifts up his lifeless legs and plops back into his wheelchair. He’s part of a growing class of athletes: a former soldier who sustained catastrophic injuries during his tour of duty in Iraq, now using sports to help rebuild his life and sense of worth.

“I fought for this country,” said Winkler, a paraplegic, as he looked ahead to the likely prospect of competing in next year’s Paralympics in Beijing. “Now I’d love to win for this country.”

The steep price of the Iraq war was evident when the U.S. Paralympic track and field championships were held at a suburban Atlanta high school. Several ex-soldiers, all severely injured in the Middle East, took part in the meet just a few days before that most patriotic of holidays, the Fourth of July.

On a field with all sorts of inspiring stories, the most poignant competitor of all might have been Travis Greene, a former college sprinter at Boise State now doing his racing in a wheelchair.

He enlisted in the Marines shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and served three tours of duty in Iraq. In December 2005, while trying to help an injured comrade, one of those dreaded IEDs (improvised explosive device) went off near his armored carrier. Just like that, both legs were gone, ripped off above the knees.

“A bunch of us were holding a stretcher,” Greene recalled. “An IED blew up on the opposite side of the vehicle. The shrapnel came under the vehicle and took out everybody’s legs.”

Seven soldiers were struck by the blast, all in the prime of life and bravely serving their country. One died. One lost a leg. Five others, Greene included, lost both legs.

“I remember the concussion of it,” he said. “And sort of the next thing I remember was sitting on my (butt). I was just looking around and a bunch of guys were on fire. I sort of passed out after that.”

Greene didn’t really wake up for a couple a months. While in intensive care, he was so heavily medicated that he wasn’t aware of what had happened. He later learned that he helped snuff out the flames on a fellow soldier, and that his buddy returned the favor when he noticed Greene also was burning.

Their story is one of horror and heroism.

“Everyone said I was real calm and collected,” Greene said. “Really, everybody was calm and collected. I heard that one of the guys, once they got him into the Humvee – and his legs were gone, too – he made some comment about, ‘How am I going to pick up girls now?”‘

While modern medicine has helped to reduce the wartime fatality rate, it has ramped up the number of disabled veterans who are sent home with this sobering question: What to do with the rest of their lives?

Sports, it seems, is providing a much-needed catharsis for those who make do with artificial limbs or find themselves confined to a wheelchair.

“We are normal like everyone else,” Winkler said. “That’s the way we’d like to be treated.”

His life changed in a freak accident. While unloading ammunition in Iraq, Winkler fell off an Army truck, landed on his back and sustained a spinal cord injury that cost him use of his legs.

After struggling with depression for about six months, Winkler slowly came to the realization that it was time to start living again.

He began working with other disabled people, hoping to inspire. Last year, the former high school sprinter attended a U.S. Olympic Committee camp for disabled veterans, a twice-a-year initiative that allows these true American heroes to work with Paralympic coaches.

Winkler, who bulked up his upper body after the accident, was quickly singled out for his potential to throw the discus, shot put and javelin. This past weekend, he set a world record in the shot with a toss of just over 10 meters from his specially built chair, which is anchored to the ground with straps, allowing him to generate all the power from the upper half of his body.

“This is all new to me,” said Winkler, who’s only been competing for eight months. “They say everybody has got some hidden talent in their body. I guess mine is in the field events. Growing up, when I was in middle school and high school, I was a sprinter. I never touched the field events.”

U.S. Paralympic coach Carla Garrett, who competed in the discus at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, noticed Winkler’s potential right away. She’s amazed he already set a world record, even though his technique needs work.

“He has extreme power,” Garrett said. “He’s fortunate that his hands and arms are still very, very powerful. His release strength is enormous, especially from a chair. When you’re standing, all your power comes from your hips. In the chair, the power has to come from the torque and release. He’s throwing the heck out of that thing.”

As for Greene, he competed in several track events at Marietta but didn’t qualify for the national team. This was only his second meet and he’s still getting used to his customized racing wheelchair.

“I definitely want to get a lot of good training in and see how well I stack up against the rest of these guys,” he said. “I want to pursue it for the next few years and see what happens.”

Even if Greene never makes it to the Paralympics, he’s already gained something that’s even more valuable – hope.

“I’m pretty nimble and agile for my condition,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who are worse off than you are. There’s no use sitting there worrying about yourself. That isn’t going to do you any good.”

Before heading home, Winkler was asked for his thoughts on the Fourth of July, the very reason all those red, white and blue flags were flying along the road in front of Marietta High School. Clearly, he looks at it as far more than a break from work or a chance to fire up the grill.

“This is what our forefathers passed on to us so we can pass it on to the next generation,” said Winkler, wearing a T-shirt that said “Leaders, Defenders, Athletes” on the back. “What the flag stands for is awesome. It’s the proudest thing to be around. I really don’t know what else to say.”

Enough said.

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