Meet the Wounded Soldiers Finding Meaning at the Warrior Games

Wounded soldiers competed against one another in the Warrior Games, the military's version of the Paralympics.

by Leander Schaerlaeckens
Sep 15 2016, 2:15pm

Jorge Salazar swoops and swirls across the basketball court with the grace of a figure skater. He practically glides, whipping his hands across the wheels of his chair. He's held down by the straps covering what's left of his legs, amputated above the knees after he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan four years ago. His red United States Marine Corps jersey has turned scarlet with sweat.

Wheelchair basketball is a physical sport of blocks and picks and an unrelenting full-court press. And this affair is serious business, the final of the 2016 Warrior Games. The games, which took place in June, are a kind of Paralympics for wounded American soldiers, pitting the various branches of the U.S. military against one another. Chairs collide violently, the clanging ringing out above the din of cheers and hoots and air horns from the packed stands. At this gym at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in New York, most of the thousand or so spectators root on the Army home team.

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When the 26-year-old Salazar tips over in one particularly hard crash, he catches himself with his thick, tattooed arms and flips back up with a 180-degree pirouette that rights him back into the swing of the ongoing action. "They call him 'The Beast,'" someone from the Air Force team whispers to me on the sideline. He's plainly the best player on the Marines. Both its center, as he was in high school back in Delano, California, before he joined the Corps, and a point guard, because he handles the ball the best.

In the first half, he's keeping the overmatched Marines in the game by himself.

Jon Stewart — that Jon Stewart — looks on from a corner, standing by the doors. He's chatting people up, taking pictures with whoever asks. He has no official role until this afternoon, when he'll MC the closing ceremonies. He's just here, presumably, to demonstrate support. To observe an extraordinary event.

Take a train up the Hudson River's eastern bank from New York City and you can't miss the United States Military Academy. It looks like a castle, rising over the opposite bank of the river, jutting out above the rocky ripples and wooded folds of the Hudson Valley. The battle cries probably won't escape you either, printed in enormous letters atop the roof of the Gillis Field House.



The objective during the Warrior Games is no different, and it offers more opportunity to face the other branches head-to-head than there are in several years' worth of collegiate competition between the academies. The event pitted the Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations Command against each other and a delegation from the British armed forces. They did battle in wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, archery, cycling, track and field, shooting and swimming. But the competition isn't all there is to it.

The point of the Warrior Games, which have been an annual event since 2010, rotating around the country, is to help wounded, ill and injured servicemembers and veterans heal. The tournament itself is only the end of a long road of trials and training camps for each branch of service. The Warrior Games promises a productive pursuit, a process and an objective for soldiers facing a life that won't be turning out as they'd imagined it. It sparks a necessary reinvention as soldiers reconsider everything in their post-injury life.

Before the wheelchair basketball final, the Air Force team won the sitting volleyball tournament. At the medal ceremony, Brian Williams – spelled like the TV anchor, "But I've probably got more under my belt than a TV anchor" – gave his gold medal back to the Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, who was handing out the prizes.

Williams is stocky, with a bulge on his left forearm and a prosthetic left leg. In 2012, he was clearing a compound in Helmand province in Afghanistan on his sixth deployment. He went to get the military working dog he handled from a room upstairs when he stepped on a booby-trap IED. He lost several teeth, most of his left leg, sustained soft tissue damage and a compound fracture of his left wrist. "Is that it? I don't know," Williams says, listing his injuries. "All kinds of stuff." Oh, he compressed his spine as well. According to a doctor, the cheap $20 Casio watch on his left wrist saved his hand from shrapnel.

Brian Williams (in blue) goes for the block. Photo by EJ Hersom

He's 34 now and he's been in the Air Force 16 years. It's all he's ever known as an adult, all he's ever wanted to do. He grew up in a military family from Arizona. When it came time to pick a branch, he went with the Air Force because they were the only ones who didn't seem desperate.

After he was wounded, he went through a frustrating post-injury Medical Evaluation Board process. The Air Force ruled that it didn't have any more use for him. But he wanted to stay in. "I didn't want to go out that way," he says now. "I'm gonna go out on my own terms, not the Taliban's." So he appealed again and again. That finally brought his case to Secretary James's desk. Her office had just decided to relax the terms under which wounded Airmen could remain in their jobs.

Williams got to stay in as an instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, later earned a promotion to Master Sergeant, and got rare permission to adopt his working dog before its retirement age. He took up sitting volleyball. He wasn't an athlete in high school, so it's sort of poetic that he became one after he got torn to pieces by a bomb.

"The secretary had a tremendous impact on my life," Williams says. "So to have a gold medal placed around my neck by her, I can only reciprocate. I told her, 'It's because of you I'm still here. So this is yours. Without you I wouldn't be playing here right now.' I could very well be in a mental funk if it wasn't for a lot of the programs such as this one – be one of the 22 a day. And I'm not a statistic."

(The 22-a-day number is an oft-cited but debunked claim that that's the number of American veterans who commit suicide each day.)

"To the warriors themselves, what they tell me, is that it means everything to them," Secretary James says. "Everybody here, they're Airmen and have been or are ill, wounded or injured. Sometimes in battle, sometimes just because life intervenes. When that happens to you, frequently you feel like you've hit a wall. You can't do it anymore. You can't be what you used to be. I think what happens when otherwise young, healthy, vibrant, strong people become wounded or ill or injured, some of them feel like their lives are over. You go to a very black and dark place. This program helps bring them back."

James tried to return the medal to Williams. He wouldn't have it.

Williams' sitting volleyball Air Force teammate Trent Smith is tall and skinny. He doesn't look like most of his teammates in that he's only 23 and able-bodied. A long scar creases the forehead above his easy smile. He medically retired in 2014 after three years of service, although he never deployed.

He became an Airman to pay for college and see the world. Now he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from an assault. He's one of the few with no visible physical wounds — his are psychological. But there's a place for him here, too. After retiring, he moved back home to Tigard, Oregon and grew isolated. Somebody suggested he try out for the Air Force sitting volleyball team—retired service members are eligible. He made the cut and won silver in 2015, before this year's championship.

"I had a terrible experience going through the Medical Evaluation Board in the Air Force, I felt really thrown away and kind of discarded," he says of the complicated and often anxious process, in which a serviceman's fitness to continue serving after an injury is assessed by a board of doctors. "Not being able to be a part of anything anymore, Air Force-wise, and being able to come back now and play sports and have another team, and have people around me who want me to be successful, in the Air Force, or the Warrior Games team means the world."

He travels a fair amount. There are camps every few months. This year alone, he's been to trials in Las Vegas, and a training camp and a tournament in Florida. The Department of Defense covers the costs. He'd like to play as long as he can.

"This has been a great outlet, it means a lot, you know, to have friends again, and do something amazing for the Air Force," Smith says. "It just makes me happy. Being able to come back and be a part of something bigger than yourself again is amazing.

"I'm still able to serve."

"It was my last patrol, if you believe it," says Brandon Dodson, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps. The last patrol of what would turn out to be his fifth and final tour. After two stints in Iraq, he was about to finish up his second in Afghanistan. And then he stepped on a pressure-plated IED loaded with several pounds of homemade explosives.

"Not a lot, but just enough," Dodson says with remarkable detachment. "It was placed very well." The charge went off just underneath him. Before he knew it, both his legs had been amputated above the knee, his pelvis was shattered and his groin completely ripped open.

It was Aug. 9, 2014.

"When he first got injured and it became our new normal, you're sitting in a hospital room and you're going, 'Shoot, what's after this? It's hard to see,'" says Dodson's wife Jasmine. The shrapnel and repercussive shock of a bomb rip not just through your body, but through the route you had charted for your life. In an instant, you go from highly capable to disabled. For a long time, it's hard to see through the dense fog.

In Dodson's case, somebody shone a light. At Walter Reed, his commander said he was going to the Marine trials for the Warrior Games. "Awesome," Dodson responded. "What is that?'"

He'd been a swimmer and a surfer growing up in San Diego. And then he'd joined the Marine Corps from the ROTC in high school, where he also ran track. His dad was a Marine. He'd grown up on bases. 9/11 happened when he was a teenager and he had his calling – "I knew I wanted to go over and fight." At 31, he'd already put in 13 years and risen to staff sergeant.

Dodson receiving his purple heart. Photo via Dodson's page

These were his first Warrior Games. Dodson medaled in all five swimming finals he participated in and took gold in the 50-meter breaststroke. He also played seated volleyball, seated discus and shotput. His life is coming together. Sort of.

Representing the Corps in the pool has given him closure on his old career on the battlefield. He could stay in if he wanted, but he's now going through the medical board to retire. "I'm happy with where my career ended," he says. "I can hang my hat up now and say I made a difference in the Marine Corps. I'm okay with walking away now."

He, Jasmine and their young son are going back to San Diego. "After participating in the Marine trials and the Warrior Games, I would like to be an athlete," Dodson says. He'll continue to train. That will be his job now. He'd like to go to the Invictus Games, a kind of international equivalent created by Prince Harry after he attended the Warrior Games in 2013.

Some have moved on from the Warrior Games to the Paralympics. But Dodson isn't thinking that far ahead yet. And the end goal is not the point. "Competition can be pretty fierce," he says. "It keeps me healthy. It gives me goals to work towards. I'm a goal-oriented guy. I have to have something in front of me to chase. It's super, super easy to not be healthy when you can't run or do regular cardio when you don't have legs. It's recovery through sport. Mentally, it's amazing. You come out here and you have a purpose and you have a team. If you don't show up, everybody suffers. So you have to show up, put up and do your job."

Brandon has a new purpose. And the rest they'll figure out. "We don't have any clue where we're going," says Jasmine. "We know we're going home, but after that it is a big question mark. This gives him things to do, goals, keeps him healthy."

The Warrior Games aren't charity. It isn't some kiddie everybody-gets-a-medal feel- good affair. It's real competition. Struggle and frustration. Months of preparation and practice. That's what makes it meaningful. It's real.

"It's important to demonstrate the capacity of our wounded veterans and soldiers," says Maryann Mandia, a volunteer. "That they are still athletes in their own right and competitive and they have adapted. I think it's phenomenal that the Warrior Games exists to showcase that. When you participate in something like this, it helps both physical and mental ailments."

Back to the basketball game. Army has clobbered the Marines 62-23, running away with the game in the second half.

"Whose house?" the players and home team fans shout in unison. "Our house!"

Salazar (in red) was injured while on patrol in Afghanistan. Photo by Jefferson VanWey

Salazar did his best. But he couldn't take on an entire team by himself. It's been almost four years since the beastly Marine Corps point-center was hurt in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Four of his peers were injured by an explosive on their way back from a patrol. When the remainder of the squad finished medevac ing them, Salazar stepped on an IED as well.

"I knew there was a chance of getting injured, but I knew there was a life after injury," the genial and serene Salazar, who is 26, says now in his quick patter. It was his second tour, but his first combat one. He was a corporal and liked to lead from the front, to be on top of everything. "I never went in thinking I'm not getting injured. I knew it wasn't a matter of if, but when. You're going to get injured eventually."

Three months later, he began playing wheelchair basketball. These were his fourth Warrior Games. And the last. "The purpose of this is to help you through your recovery and I feel like I've gone through that now," he says. "It's helped and now I'm going to move on. I'm done with being a patient." He hopes to be back as a coach, and mentor.

He retired from the Marine Corps in 2014, after six years of service coming right out of high school in Delano, California. "Right now, my main focus is wheelchair basketball and my children," he says. "I'm a full-time, single dad." He has two boys, 3 and 5. Their mother is around, but they live with him. "That's what I care about most is my children," says Salazar. "And then the thing that keeps me alive, which is wheelchair basketball. I have a feeling if I didn't have it I would have a lot more problems mentally. I wouldn't have somewhere to release my stress and just vent. This is my sport, this is what I do. I switched my battlefield."

He wants to make the U.S. national wheelchair basketball team. He wants to play overseas. Maybe make it to the Paralympics. "I haven't stopped playing basketball since I started in 2013. And that's the biggest thing: I haven't stopped," Salazar says. "People say, 'How do you get better?' Well, you've gotta put your butt in the chair and keep pushing."