NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — David Vernaza suffered traumatic brain injury after his convoy was attacked in Iraq in 2004, leaving the former Navy Seabee with a series of crippling physical injuries and others that caused a fun-loving man to live in a dark world within his mind.
But after receiving years of treatment at a veterans hospital in Miami, Vernaza started to participate in sports as part of his therapy that he says helped change his life along with the dedicated support of his family.
"I had a lot of guilt. I had a lot of resentment," said Vernaza, who retired from the Navy in 2007 after 17 years of service and was unable to use his right arm when he returned to the U.S. and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
This past week, he and more than 60 other sailors and Coast Guardsmen who are wounded, ill or injured descended on Naval Station Norfolk to compete for a spot on Team Navy as it prepares to compete in the 2014 Wounded Warrior games in Colorado this fall.
"It still makes me feel part of the Navy," Vernaza, of Orlando, said about the trials to compete in shot put and discus. "Every one of us more or less understands each other. It's uplifting. I'm a different person here. I'm my old self, the happy-go-lucky guy, the one who tells jokes."
The military says getting Wounded Warriors into competitive sports helps expedite their recoveries, prevent further injuries and provides a morale boost as athletes realize they're still part of a valuable team. This is the fifth year the military has fielded teams to compete against each other in Wounded Warrior games, and a select few will travel to London this fall to compete in the inaugural Invictus Games for a global competition against other nations.
"Just being able to come together as athletes and share common stories of their recovery, we found that it was just transforming and accelerated the recovery, so it grew larger and larger every year," said Capt. Brent Breining, director of the Navy's Wounded Warrior-Safe Harbor program.
About 40 people will be chosen to represent Team Navy this year, and 20 of those sailors will get to travel to London. The adaptive sports they compete in include archery, wheelchair basketball, cycling, swimming and seated volleyball, all sports chosen by the U.S. Olympic Committee, who may choose athletes to compete in the Paralympics. While some may compete at the highest levels, that's not necessarily the most important goal.
"When the Navy retires them and sends them to middle America where's there no more Navy, there's no more nothing, then they feel alone. So our goal is to bring them back into the fold," said Marty Martinez, the Navy's lead for adaptive sports, family and transition support.
"Our goal is to get the sailor or the Coast Guardsman out of the house, off the couch, back into some kind of rhythm, back into some kind of team and to get them moving again."
That said, rivalries among services remain strong. Last year the Navy placed third in the Wounded Warrior games and Navy leaders expect bigger and better things out of this year's competitors.
"This is about you guys and this about you honing your skills to go out to Colorado Springs in the Warrior Games and kick the other services' butts," an exuberant Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander of Navy Region Mid-Atlantic told Wounded Warriors gathered for the trials that ended on Saturday. "You're going to squash the Marine Corps, you're going to sit on the Army and you're going to Flatten the Air Force."
That excitement, and support, put a huge smile on Chief Petty Officer Averill Malone's face as he yelled at "Hooyah" in response. Malone is from Nashville and said he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression following a deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He's been in the Navy for 21 years after graduating high school and is competing for a slot on Team Navy in archery, which he was directed to as part of his ongoing therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Following what he said was a lackluster performance during his try out, he said he was able to hold his head high because of the support of the other athletes and his 21-year-old daughter, Dominique Wilson, who lives in Norfolk came out to watch him this week.
"She didn't know that I did archery. She was like wow, you look really good. This is the first time ever that a family member actually saw me doing archery. She even said she saw a big difference in me," he said. "I look happier. I can smile now. Before, for years, I didn't smile. My mood is better, the nightmares have gone down, but they haven't gone away. She really saw a difference in the way I interact with people."