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Disabled Veteran Trains for Inaugural Warrior Games

March 29, 2010

Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden | American Forces Press Service

Doctors once told Matthew Bilancia that playing sports and competing in athletic competition would be difficult, if not nearly impossible.

But the Air Force veteran is defying those odds with a demanding workout regimen and by being selected to participate in the inaugural Warrior Games slated May 10-14 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Bilancia is among 25 wounded airmen and disabled veterans expected to represent the Air Force at the games.

The competition is open to military members and veterans with bodily injuries as well as mental wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. The Defense Department announced in January that about 200 disabled servicemembers and veterans are expected to participate. An official announcement to inform the selected athletes is expected to be made in the coming weeks.

Typical adaptive sports competitions hosted by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are open to anyone. The Warrior Games, however, are expected to be highly competitive because of the selection process. Independent panels have been reviewing applications since January to determine who will represent each of the military services.

“The Warrior Games are going to be successful simply because of its selection process,” Bilancia told American Forces Press Service. “I think it's going to raise the bar.”

Still, just being able to compete and participate in athletics at all after suffering life-changing injuries is a great accomplishment, he added.

Bilancia, a New Jersey native, shattered his right knee in July 2002 when his motorcycle was rear-ended by a car. He was stationed with the Air Force in Tucson, Ariz. Every ligament in his knee was damaged, and he was medically separated from the service in 2004. He sought treatment to repair his leg through the VA health system. After eight surgeries, his entire leg eventually became septic, and doctors told him he might never play sports again.

“The doctors told me I'd basically have a hard time walking, [and] that I'd never be able to run or jog,” he said.

Bilancia now is an avid snowboarder, and he plays wheelchair basketball and tennis. He also has a weekly workout routine that would make most people think twice about going to the gym with him. In fact, since moving here recently, Bilancia said he has had nine different workout partners, with most not bothering to show up for Day 2.

Working out and staying fit helps to control depression and cope with physical pain better than anything his doctors could ever prescribe, Bilanca said. For the past three years, an intense combination of cardiovascular and weight-lifting sessions five and six days a week has been his medicine of choice.

“I started using strength and endurance training and athletics about three years ago to manage my depression and post-traumatic stress, and as a substitute for narcotics,” he said. “I found that I'd rather have the endorphin release and adrenaline rush from working out than numbing my pain with medications.”

Bilancia said he'll take that message to Colorado. While there, he wants “to identify to myself that I'm able to compete, and to be an inspiration to others who think that they can't compete.”

Bilancia said he hopes the games will be another long-term and continuing conduit for disabled veterans and wounded warriors to discover their true abilities. Often, people with disabilities shy away from athletics and are fearful of failing, he noted.

The military mentality instilled in him during his service made it extremely difficult to admit weaknesses and a need for help, he acknowledged. But he said he eventually learned that opening up helped him become more optimistic and confident.

“Success in this whole program is not about winning events,” he said. “It's more about participating, enjoying it and actually learning that you can do something you couldn't do before, or that you thought you couldn't do.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee will host the games, and events will include shooting, swimming, archery and wheelchair basketball, to name a few. Since 2003, the U.S. Paralympics Committee has worked in partnership with VA, providing adaptive sports therapy to veterans. The Warrior Games is not a Paralympics qualifying event.

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