U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — More than 60 wounded veterans from across the country participated in the final Warrior and Invictus Games training camp here Aug. 3-7 to prepare for the fall games, motivate others and take a healthy step toward recovery.
The athletes competed in track and field, basketball, volleyball, swimming, marksmanship and wheelchair tennis to build meaningful connections and experience positive healing through their challenges.
“Most of us here have been in a very dark place, sometimes for short periods of time, sometimes for long periods of time,” said retired Air Force Capt. Jeff Haugh, a camp participant. “If you can find a way to look beyond your own challenges and find a way to see the bigger picture, you can help inspire someone else. I think that is the most valuable piece of this program.”
Haugh, a 1999 Academy graduate, suffered a traumatic brain injury and spine injury during a 2003 deployment to Iraq.
“I was working as an Office of Special Investigations agent when I was involved in a high-speed vehicle accident and had to medically retire from the Air Force because of my injuries,” he said. “After I learned I had a significant brain injury, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, induced by the TBI. It’s a tricky disease because it’s very unpredictable, and I don’t always show something is wrong with me. It’s been a challenging road to recovery and I consider the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program to be a key in my recovery.”
During his recovery, Haugh’s wife was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
“She is a cancer survivor,” he said. “Some of my recovery was put on hold because of her diagnosis. Her last chemotherapy treatment was in 2005. She is doing well and we have three daughters. I’m grateful to have a healthy family who is very supportive.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Haugh will compete in sitting discus, shot put and recumbent biking at the Warrior Games Sept. 28-Oct. 4 here and at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He said he thinks adaptive sports are a great outlet for healing.
“I think the Warrior Games are a healthy choice for combat veterans in terms of taking ownership of their own recovery,” he said. “The most valuable aspect is not the competition or medals but the camaraderie. We build lifetime bonds through the program and the most valuable piece is to inspire others.”
Haugh said he hopes the games bring as much awareness to non-visible disabilities as visible ones.
“Many veterans have combat injuries that aren’t physically noticeable,” he said. “Not all wounded warriors are missing a limb. A good number of them have brain injuries or are struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
The day Haugh arrived to the camp marked 20 years since he attended the Prep School in 1994. As a cadet, he played on the Academy’s football team and returned to the Prep School to coach football from 1999-2000.
“Athletics have always been a part of my life,” he said. “It’s an honor not only to be back around fellow Airmen, but to be doing something athletic again is inspiring. Athletics are not only good for your body but good for general healing.”
Haugh, a Maryland resident, is chairman of a not-for-profit program called Racing for Veterans. The program provides grants to wounded service members for rehabilitation.
“There are many people alive today because of the Wounded Warrior Program,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of something that can actually save people’s lives. For me, the most beneficial piece has been the opportunity to provide some sort of inspiration, comfort or value to someone else struggling.”
The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program was developed in 2009; the adaptive sports program was created in 2010, according to Steve Otero, Air Force Wounded Warrior Program communications and marketing coordinator.
“The Warrior Games is our Defense Department’s underservice competition,” he said. “It’s not so much of a competition rather an adaptive sporting event designed to encourage healthy recovery options. It’s to encourage the morale of a discharged veteran and continually reinforce to them that their service will encourage a recovery in a healthy and holistic way.”
Athletes train twice a year at the Academy for the Warrior Games. This year, 23 Airmen attended the camp to train for the Invictus games held in United Kingdom. They will represent the U.S. at the event Sept. 10-14.