Maimed soldiers retraining to serve in another foreign field

JOEY BOZIK had no right to survive the blast that blew off both his legs and his right arm.

The landmine that maimed the young US Army sergeant made him one of the hidden statistics of the Iraq war — one of 400 amputees among nearly 16,000 US troops wounded since the invasion. Yet, despite his horrific injuries, Sergeant Bozik has joined the growing ranks of disabled veterans who are determined to fight for their country again.

Only this time the medals they dream of are gold.

The unprecedented number of troops who are returning from Iraq with missing limbs has given the US Paralympic Team an unexpected recruitment boost and the chance to become “unbeatable” at the next Games in Beijing in 2008. More than 60 potential recruits have already been identified in sports as varied as powerlifting, archery and table tennis.

John Register, a veteran of the Gulf War in 1990, who manages the US Paralympic Academy, said: “This has been a shot in the arm of the Paralympic movement and an immediate boost. The Paralympics is a huge motivating factor for injured service members. It exponentially increases the individual’s idea of what is possible.”

One name to watch is Kortney Clemons. The 25-year-old combat medic played football, basketball and baseball back in Mississippi. His right leg was blown off above the knee in a Baghdad backstreet in February while he was carrying a wounded comrade. Mr Clemons is aiming for the podium in powerlifting. “Sport allows us to know we might have bad days, just like anybody else, but we can continue to move on in life and still compete,” he said. “

You can’t get stuck in that rut, start feeling pity for yourself and let life pass you by.”

Ramon Guitard, 22, was trying to protect civilians on a Baghdad bus when his vehicle was hit by several explosives. He lost his right leg above the knee, had his left leg fused with a titanium rod, and a stroke later left him partially paralysed on his left side. He is a medal hopeful after recording 2 hrs 21 min in this year’s New York marathon. “It is all about continuing to find freedom outside of my injury,” he said.

Mr Register, 40, knows what it takes to make it as a Paralympian. As a track and field athlete he had Olympic trials for 1988 and 1992, but thought his career had ended two years later. “I suffered a crippling injury when I overextended my leg hurdling and severed my artery. Gangrene set in and I ended up having an amputation. But I was able to get back through sport.”

He won silver at the Sydney Paralympics in the long jump.

“I have been through all these questions: Who am I? What are my parents going to think of me? All this gives me insight into what’s happening with these young servicemen and women from Iraq.”

Mr Register has contacted almost 200 of the Iraq amputees and identified 61 with the potential for the Paralympic squad. He has run two training events in California so that veterans can try out sports, and another is planned next month in Georgia. None of his funding comes from the Pentagon but he refuses to be critical of the Government. He says that he prefers his Paralympic military training programme to be independent and paid for by the US Olympic Committee.

His next battle is to ensure that military Paralympians can join able-bodied Olympic hopefuls in the US Army World Class Athlete Programme. This will enable them to stay on as fully paid members of the military rather than have to retire on benefits. The necessary legislative change has been attached to a Bill going through Congress.

For the US Paralympic movement, the influx of Iraq veterans brings it full circle from its foundations after the Second World War when many young troops returned home disabled. Subsequent wars have brought new recruits but not in anything like the numbers of Iraq, where more amputees are surviving thanks to better body armour and improved medical care. Advances in prosthetics technology make taking part in sport easier.

Perhaps the most remarkable story is that of Sergeant Bozik, 27, who took the full force of a landmine while a passenger in a Humvee in October last year. Every limb was broken and he ended up a triple amputee. His fiancée, Jayme, stuck by him and they married on December 31, the day after he stood for the first time on prosthetic legs. Within months the ex-soldier from North Carolina was waterskiing again and he has tried out several Paralympic sports, including swimming, archery and volleyball.

Mr Register said: “I think he could well be a Paralympian. I was not sure how much he could do as a triple amputee (in volleyball) but he was batting the ball with two hands, his artificial limb and regular arm. He is beginning to realise, ‘I could be on that trip to Beijing’.

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