Capt. Sarah Evans, who lost her leg to bone cancer, watches active-duty and medically retired airmen participate in the swimming clinic June 26 at the Air Force Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports Camp at Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Photos by Mike Morones / Staff)
Swimming instructor Larry Franklin, a medically retired staff sergeant, demonstrates how to breathe while swimming to Senior Airman Michael Napier of Charlottesville, Va. Franklin said participating in the Warrior Games made a significant difference in his recovery. (Photos by Mike Morones / Staff)
Airman 1st Class Haley Gilbraith, of Rock Island, Ill., learns to control the ball during the basketball clinics. (Photos by Mike Morones / Staff)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD. — For some, the life-changing wounds happened on the battlefield: sniper fire, an enemy ambush. For others, in a hospital room: cancer diagnoses and painful back surgeries.
Many ended up feeling utterly alone and content to stay that way. But for one reason or another — a counselor kept after them, a spouse insisted — they joined a community of wounded warriors relearning how to get active. And life changed again, this time for the better.
About 30 injured and wounded airmen were introduced to the Wounded Warrior Program in an adaptive sports camp here June 26 and 27.
They participated in swimming, golf and wheelchair basketball, in archery, track and field, and sitting volleyball. The camp was the first held in this part of the country and served airmen from patient squadrons at Andrews and Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Senior Airman Michael Napier was reluctant to come. So was Dwayne Parker, but for different reasons.
Napier didn’t think he deserved a spot here.
“I didn’t consider myself wounded,” he said. “When you think ‘wounded warrior,’ you think IEDs and post-traumatic stress disorder. I wasn’t on the battlefield. There are lots of people who have it worse.”
At 22, he is fighting a different kind of battle: He has testicular cancer.
“Gunshot wounds, explosion wounds, cancer, strokes, motor accidents. We serve all of them the same,” said Tony Jasso, a care manager with the program. “It doesn’t matter how or why you get hurt. You’re Air Force, and we’re going to take care of you.”
Parker lost sight in his right eye during a sniper attack in Afghanistan on July 4, 2009. His wife stopped working to care for him. He medically retired as a senior airman and quickly learned the $866 monthly check couldn’t support a family of four. As he fought for Veterans Affairs benefits, the bank foreclosed on their home.
He became a different person, said his wife, Rebecca.
“I’m very patriotic. I’ve always loved my country. I want to do right and take care of my family. It’s been a real internal struggle for me,” Parker said.
Each year, his counselor encouraged him to try out for the Warrior Games. Each time, Parker said no. This year, Rebecca was adamant. She thought it would help heal his emotional wounds to be among airmen who have gone through similar experiences. She was right.
“I turned in my application the very last day. I’m really glad I did come. I wish I would have before. But I’m glad I decided to today,” Parker said.
Rebecca sat with the couple’s two children, ages 9 and 2, in a patch of shade at the pool while he learned swimming strokes. “I’m glad to see the smile on his face,” she said. “It’s refreshing to see that spark come back to his eyes.”
A few feet away, Napier surfaced from a lap in the pool. Capt. Sarah Evans sat on the sideline, waiting and watching.
“That was really good,” she called out. “Your breathing is a lot better. You looked a ton better.”
Evans was on a deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, when she developed pain in her hip. An MRI revealed a tumor. She was diagnosed with bone cancer and given a choice: Keep her left leg and face a high chance of a recurrence or become an amputee. A year ago, she became an amputee.
“It sucked still,” she said. “But it was the only option that I had that would allow me to go on and live my life. That made it easy.”
Evans took a bronze medal in swimming in the 2013 Warrior Games and served as a mentor at the adaptive sports camp here. At the edge of the pool, she and Napier traded stories: Getting out of shape, the boredom of the gym, chemotherapy.
Evans explained how she couldn’t even doggie-paddle around the pool when she first started. Napier has a lot of natural skill, she told him. Before long, a small crowd had gathered around her.
“Is anyone feeling definitely interested in the Warrior Games?” she asked them.
Napier said he was.
Retired Tech. Sgt. Larry Franklin was the guy in the pool with all the tattoos, four of which depict his fallen comrades. Inked on his forearms are the words, “All gave some. Some gave all.”
He is quiet-spoken, and when he addressed the swimming participants, he apologized for not being more articulate. A couple of years ago, Franklin wouldn’t have said anything at all.
“I was real standoffish,” he said. “I was not very approachable.”
A bullet wound during an ambush in Afghanistan in 2007 sent him into himself. Franklin manned the .50-caliber machine gun on convoys outside the wire. After the injury, he tried to go into recruiting to stay in the Air Force. He refused to admit he needed help, blowing off doctor’s appointments until he had a seizure.
“It’s hard for any Type A military person to admit he needs help,” Franklin said. “I missed being with my guys. You feel like you’ve been taken out of something just because you were injured. There is constant guilt, wondering, ‘Can I still do it?’ All these other guys are still doing it.”
Franklin said he slowly learned it was OK to get help. It was OK to go talk to somebody.
“Even during that time, it was such a crazy roller coaster,” he said.
Along the way, he had a son.
Jasso, the care manager, persuaded him to give the Wounded Warriors Program a chance.
Now medically retired and living in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., he recently competed in the Warrior Games. He got his first chance to serve as a mentor at Andrews. It was an honor, he said.
“There is satisfaction in feeling like your story is helping someone else. There is a sense of service, of still getting to be part of the team,” Franklin said. “Now I feel like I’ll always be part of the Air Force.”