[caption id="attachment_3385" align="alignleft" width="300"] Carlos Figueroa, a Marine Corps veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and nerve injuries to his left leg during operations in Afghanistan, tries his hand at kayaking at the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego. VA photo by Robert Turtil[/caption] WASHINGTON Traumatic brain injuries, amputations and other combat wounds aren't getting in the way of a good time - and a great rehabilitative experience - for 75 disabled veterans participating this week in the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic in San Diego.
The clinic, sponsored by the Veterans Affairs Department, opened Sept. 18 and wraps up with closing ceremonies later today.About a third of the participants were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some still being processed through the disability evaluation system, officials reported. For many, the clinic is their introduction to adaptive sports and recreational activities, and the therapeutic value of sailing, surfing, cycling, kayaking and track and field events. Raymond Warren, a 29-year-old Marine lance corporal severely wounded in Iraq when a grenade embedded shrapnel in his brain, legs, stomach and arms, said first learning of his severe traumatic brain injury felt like a death sentence. Always highly competitive, Warren feared when he first awoke at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., that an important part of his life was forever gone. "It hit me pretty hard," he said. But this week, as he ran hurdles, kayaked and tried his hand at sailing, surfing and other clinic events alongside his fellow veterans, Warren said he found himself focusing on his abilities rather than his disabilities. "This shows me I've still got what I used to have," he said. "There's nothing that can stop me from accomplishing the goals I've set forth in front of me." Like Warren, Carlos Figueroa always had been a devoted 'jock' before he was medically evacuated from Afghanistan with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and nerve injuries to his left leg. "I've always been really competitive and big into sports, but when I got out of the service with my injury, I realized that I could no longer do any of the sports I used to play because I couldn't run," said the 31-year-old medically retired Marine. A friend introduced Figueroa to mixed martial arts and jujitsu, which have helped to renew his competitive spirit. "Once we hit the floor, I am no longer disabled," he said. "It's a fair game for both of us." Both Figueroa and Warren got their first exposure to VA's sports clinic program while attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo. Warren has participated three times. Figueroa attended the clinic for the first time this spring. "Since my injury, I've competed in other events, and typically I would be the only disabled participant," he said. "But the satisfaction of competing at the winter sports clinic felt 10 times greater -- just being around other disabled veterans, with everyone trying their hardest and knowing that, whether you succeed or not, everyone has achieved a goal in some way, just by being there." A joker at heart, Figueroa said the winter sports clinic restored the smile he'd lost and instilled a newfound self-confidence that has helped him resume a full life. "What I took back from it was not to underestimate myself, not to let my disability control me," he said. "There are still tons of things I can do out there." While relishing the competition at their first summer sports clinic, both Warren and Figueroa say they're buoyed just as much by the camaraderie they've found among their fellow disabled veterans. "You're with people who know what you're going through," Warren said. "We understand each other, so this is like a second family, away from your family." "This is great for veterans," agreed Figueroa. "I see the smile on so many veterans' faces while we are competing. You get participating in an event, and somehow, the pain goes away. I don't know why. Maybe it's just the simple fact that you are around other disabled veterans." Warren said he has benefitted greatly from the lessons shared by veterans with more experience living with their disabilities. "When you fall down, get up. Keep going forward," he said. "And don't let anything hold you down." Warren has taken those lessons to heart, noting he shares them with the newer disabled veterans he meets. "Don't give up on your goals," Warren said he tells his comrades. "And come to these events, because you are among other veterans going through what you are going through, and they will help you through it."Sept. 24, 2010: By Donna Miles- American Forces Press Service