By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Finding a new team — and a new purpose
wheelchair rugby
Being in wheelchairs doesn’t stop rugby from being a contact sport. Photos by Pat Donahue

In their previous uniforms, they were members of a team, acting as a unit.

Today, they still have uniforms, albeit with numbers emblazoned on a jersey, and they still act as a team – with a different goal in mind.

The members of the U.S. Army’s wheelchair rugby team took to the floor of Fort Stewart’s Newman Physical Fitness Center, preparing for the upcoming Warrior Games in Orlando, Florida. They were hosted by the Winn Army Community Hospital and the post’s Soldier Recovery Unit.

“The team building that happens so quickly is exceptional,” said Maj. Casey Turner, the adaptive reconditioning officer in charge for the Army Recovery Care Program.

The team members worked on every last detail of fundamentals for wheelchair rugby, along with some of the strategy and tactics they will put in play against other services’ teams in Orlando.

The Army picked Fort Stewart as a place to train in part because of its proximity to Orlando. It’s also a testament to the program Dr. Yvonne LaRochelle has at Fort Stewart for adaptive reconditioning.

For Staff Sgt. Abel Baez, who spent 19 years in the National Guard, the wheelchair rugby team has been a saving grace. Baez was on active duty for 14 of his 19 years in the Guard, and there were complications from a knee surgery.

“I went into a bad place when I was told I was getting discharged,” he said.

Baez was injured and he was informed he was going to be discharged after his surgery.

“I became stressed. And a lot of things can run through your mind,” he said.

For other soldiers in the same situation, the onset of the end of a career in the service can be filled with dread, Baez acknowledged.

“They feel like their lives are worthless,” he said. “This is the only thing I really know how to do.”

Once he was introduced to the program, “I felt like I had a family back in my life.”

The psychological and mental effects on the soldiers’ well-being from being involved in a team activity are welcomed by all those in and around the adaptive sports programs.

“It’s a big part of their rehab,” said Dr. Yvonne Larochelle, adaptive reconditioning lead at Fort Stewart. “The adaptive sports are very key because it brings back that team element. A lot of soldiers are transitioning into the civilian world. A lot of them don’t have that sense of camaraderie or team as they exit out. To be that sergeant major or drill sergeant and that ability to lead, they look for that. Adaptive sports is a big part of that.”

“It’s great because you’re doing it with a group of guys who have gone through a situation that might be more severe but can still do it,” Baez said. “Some of these guys don’t have limbs and they are as good if not better than you are at some sports.”

Maj. Turner, herself a former adaptive sports team member, lauded the work Dr. LaRochelle has done in supporting the adaptive sports program and also said the sports teams are vital to the soldiers’ well-being.

“That’s the paramount goal for these programs is the wellness and recovery,” she said. “We’re fostering the same values of the larger Army in teamwork and leadership and personal courage and selfless service. The athletes work so well together. That camaraderie helps them in the recovery process.

Even the practices have building blocks of teamwork – such as a blindfolded soldier in a wheelchair with a ball in their hands getting guided by another soldier in a wheelchair right behind them. Using volleyballs, the soldiers also throw passes like they were football plays, with another simulating defender, going so far as to crash their wheelchairs together at full speed.

The wheelchairs are quite heavy, yet the soldier-athletes whipped them around the Newman floor with ease, though it’s a quite workout to do that.

“They make it look a lot easier than it actually is,” Turner said.

“After you’re doing this for a few hours a day, all you want to do is get back home and die,” Baez said.

The Warrior Games will be held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World from June 21-30. Along with wheelchair rugby, service members will compete in archery, cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, track, field, wheelchair basketball, shooting, indoor rowing, and powerlifting.

Finding that sense of teamwork again is a factor in the soldiers’ recovery process, according to Turner. One of the biggest compliments the soldiers pay to the program “is the ability to work with people who are going through things that they are have either gone through or are still going through.

“For many of these athletes this is an ongoing process,” she continued. “It’s not a ‘go to the recovery unit and be done.’ This is a lifelong process for many of them and you’ll hear them often say this is a new normal but this is their new team. This is their new crew to kind of carry them through whatever challenges come up.”

wheelchair rugby
wheelchair rugby
Sign up for our e-newsletters