When the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) hosts the Department of Defense (DOD) Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida, in the last week of June 2019, it will be the 10th year of an event that has blossomed into an international adaptive multi-sport event, a showcase of the grit, determination, and fellowship of the world’s wounded, ill, and injured warriors.
Founded in 2010, the first official Warrior Games were hosted by the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado – but there had been other competitions in the years leading up to them. As Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, director of SOCOM’s Warrior Care Program (Care Coalition), remembers the games held from 2010 to 2014 were more like intramural competitions among wounded warriors from the different service branches. At the 2010 games, said Harbaugh, the SOCOM team was in its infancy stage. We were writing ‘Team SOCOM’ with markers on white T-shirts.”
Jim Lorraine, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served as the Care Coalition’s first director, explained why SOCOM athletes might have looked a little shabbier than other competitors: “None of the services wanted us to have our own team,” he said. Through much of his 2005-2011 tenure, Lorraine fought to get warriors who’d been served by the SOCOM Care Coalition to be recognized as a separate team at adaptive sports competitions, but the service branches were reluctant, for two reasons: They thought the Care Coalition’s team would take all the good athletes, and they thought recognizing a Team SOCOM would suggest special operations forces were service branch equivalent to the others. For a few years, Lorraine said, organizers of the games wouldn’t allow the SOCOM team to choose a uniform shirt color – hence the white T-shirts.
Lorraine’s lobbying effort was two-pronged: First, he argued the athletes at the games weren’t representing service branches, but individual warrior transition programs: the SOCOM Care Coalition, the Army Wounded Warrior Program, the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, Navy Wounded Warrior-Safe Harbor, and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. Second, he negotiated deals. He told the Navy, for example, that the Care Coalition would take only half the eligible SEALs; the Navy team could keep the rest.
“I knew that if we got our foot in the door,” Lorraine said, “we would be able to stay. I was willing to give up anything: T-shirt colors? I didn’t care. Just let us have a team.”
The first four annual Warrior Games were hosted in Colorado Springs by the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and they immediately captured the public’s interest. Britain’s Prince Harry, who was at the time a helicopter pilot in the British Army, participated in the opening of the 2013 games, and was so inspired by the games he created a similar event, the Invictus Games, launched the following year in London.
The success of the games animated DOD leaders to throw the military’s support behind them and administer the Warrior Games as a DOD program, with a more formalized structure and event classifications. The games became more like the Olympics, with opening and closing ceremonies and each of the U.S. teams taking turns as hosts of the event:
The 2015 Warrior Games were hosted by the Marines and held at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
The 2016 games were hosted by the Army and held at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.
The 2017 games were hosted by the Navy and, for the first time, held somewhere other than a military base or U.S. Olympic training facility. Athletes competed at sites in and around the city of Chicago, with opening ceremonies emceed by comedian Jon Stewart at Soldier Field.
The 2018 games, hosted by the Air Force, returned to Colorado Springs, where they were held at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“When you go to the Warrior Games now,” said Harbaugh, “you’d think you were at the Olympics, because it feels that way. It has the torch and the cauldron and the march of the teams, the pomp and ceremony. It’s grown as it’s evolved, and now it’s just a beautiful event.”
The Life-Altering Benefits of Adaptive Sports
The Warrior Games can be traced to physical rehabilitation programs that sprang up in the wake of World War II, of which adaptive sports were a key component. Originally designed for rehabilitation and recreation, these sports soon became competitive. After the first official Paralympic Games were held in 1960, a number of organizations began forming in the United States to promote sports for people with physical disabilities. One of the first, Disabled Sports USA, was founded by disabled military veterans, and remains one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world.
According to retired Army Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, the former SOCOM commander who established the Care Coalition in 2005, adaptive sports played an important role in the program since its beginnings, when sports rehabilitation facilities were contracted to help clients improve their ability to perform physical functions. “They were very good at rehabilitation of guys with missing limbs,” he said. “The type of people who are in special operations are traditionally athletic, outgoing, and love to exercise. So those programs were a good fit.”
After the success of the inaugural Warrior Games in 2010, DOD launched its own program, now carried out at three medical treatment facilities: the Military Adaptive Sports Program (MASP). Administered by the DOD Office of Warrior Care Policy, the program attempts to enhance recovery by getting wounded, ill, and injured service members involved in ongoing, daily adaptive sports and activities based on their interest and ability.
To those who’ve been clients of SOCOM’s Care Coalition, the benefits of adaptive sports often extend far beyond restoring physical function. “We use adaptive sports to promote wellness and inspiration,” said Harbaugh. “It really helps people heal emotionally.”
When her Special Forces team was patrolling near Kandahar in March 2014, then-Sgt. Lauren Montoya suffered a severe leg injury from an IED blast, and spent the next year undergoing painful limb salvage treatments. Montoya had been a multi-sport athlete in high school, and had stayed fit by running countless laps around a makeshift track at her firebase in Afghanistan, but in the year after her injury, nearly every kind of movement hurt, and she was unable to walk even a quarter of a mile. As she imagined a life spent dragging around a useless and painful appendage, she tended toward despair. SOCOM’s Care Coalition helped her lobby to have the leg amputated, which was finally done in April 2015 – and within 45 days she was running on her new prosthetic leg.
“Being part of the adaptive sports program prior to that, I think, affected my mental health more than my physical health, because I was really angry. I was frustrated at the process. And being around individuals who had either gone through the same process, or were just there offering moral support, was something I think really helped during that time.”
Harbaugh, who took over the program just as Montoya became a client, saw this happening firsthand. “Adaptive sports brought her back to life,” he said. “I watched a very gloomy young woman who had been very badly injured and was going through limb salvage, which was very painful, and ultimately made the choice to go the amputation route. And I watched that young woman in a dark, dark hole – you could tell she was there – crawl out of that to be fun and energetic and enthusiastic, a person who is a joy to be around.”
Montoya competed in the 2016 Invictus Games and 2018 Warrior Games, medaling in multiple events. At last year’s games, in Colorado Springs, she competed in track, field, swimming, and seated volleyball, and won five gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. She’s carried the motivation that drove her to excel in adaptive sports, she said, into her career and family life. She’s married now, with a daughter, and after fighting to remain on active duty, she’s a staff sergeant on SOCOM’s Care Coalition staff, helping to coordinate the 2019 games in Tampa.
“Whether you want to stay in the military or not, in order to thrive in any sort of capacity, you have to have that drive to want to do better, be better,” she said. “So having opportunities to ignite that feeling again was, at least for me, pretty crucial in making me stop – it’s too easy to feel sorry for yourself. But you realize a lot of people in similar situations are doing all of this stuff, so there is no reason for me to be upset or to feel like I can’t do something, because here are – whatever the injury, whatever the illness – here are these people trying to make the best of it.”
The 2019 Games
Training for and competing in the Warrior Games has never been the primary focus of DOD’s MASP, but the games offer a showcase, a pinnacle event, for service members and veterans who participate in adaptive sports throughout the year as part of their recovery and rehabilitation process.
The 2019 games, hosted by SOCOM June 21-30 in Tampa, will feature about 300 service members and veterans representing the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and SOCOM. Athletes will also be competing from an unprecedented number of international teams, including the United Kingdom Armed Forces, Australian Defense Force, New Zealand Defense Force, Danish Defense, Armed Forces of the Netherlands, and Canadian Armed Forces. The roster of events includes archery, cycling, indoor rowing, wheelchair tennis, powerlifting, shooting, seated volleyball, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball – and, for the first time in Warrior Games history, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair tennis, and golf.
The Tampa games will feature opening and closing ceremonies in Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League. Other venues will include the Tampa Convention Center, the University of South Florida, the Eagles Golf Club in nearby Odessa, and the Long Aquatic Center in Clearwater. Cycling events will be held both at MacDill Air Force Base and on Tampa’s scenic Bayshore Boulevard.
“It’s going to be an absolutely amazing event,” said Harbaugh. “It’s 300 athletes, about a thousand or more family members, and as many people in the Tampa community and surrounding areas as we can get out to fill these stadiums and show these wounded warriors how much the public appreciates their service and sacrifice.”
One of the distinctive features of the Tampa games, Harbaugh said, is the degree to which they draw on the support of the community – an established tradition in the city that’s home to MacDill Air Force Base and SOCOM Headquarters. “The way this community supports the military and veterans is like no place I’ve been in this country,” said Harbaugh. Tampa’s community leaders have helped establish a new model for the Warrior Games, one that minimizes taxpayer costs while drawing in private-sector support in a way that respects the dignity and individuality of competitors. In accordance with DOD rules, for example, operators of the various venues are offering discounted access. “That outpouring has been absolutely phenomenal,” Harbaugh said. Community support has kept the costs of the games down low enough that SOCOM is on track to refund some of the event funding to the DOD for its warrior care programs. It will be the first time in Warrior Games history that the program has been under budget.
The support pouring in from the community, however, won’t take the form of corporate logos plastered all over venues or competitors. “Our model is community supported, not corporately sponsored,” Harbaugh said. “The only logo they should wear is the Warrior Games logo, which they earned.”
To learn details about the 2019 Warrior Games and receive updates about events, competitors, and schedules, DOD maintains several online information portals, including its website (dodwarriorgames.com), a Facebook page (facebook.com/WarriorGames) and Twitter feed (twitter.com/warriorgames). All of the games’ competitions are open to the public and free of charge.
Visitors to the 2019 games will likely see Staff Sgt. Lauren Montoya, who will be competing for the last time. She’s battled, won, and made lifelong friends among her SOCOM team members and other competitors. “You can’t stay forever,” she said. “You’ve got to move on and let other people get those same benefits. It’s fun for me now, but it’s no longer essential for my recovery. It’s something I do because I love it, and I love the team, and I love my teammates. But I know there are other people who are still getting deployed, still getting injured, still getting sick – and they need to have that opportunity to go through it, to find meaning and motivation or just to feel like part of a team again.”