Marine Lance Cpl. Duncan Mathis rolled to the sidelines of the basketball court in his sport wheelchair, sweat dripping from his face after a hard practice, slipped on his prosthetic leg and then walked out of the gym at Quantico.
The 21-year-old lost his left leg after falling to the bottom of an 80-foot well during a night raid in 2013 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. “Love that place,” he joked. “Thinking about getting a time share.”
While Lance Cpl. Mathis slipped in and out of consciousness at the bottom of the well, a firefight broke out above ground that made it too dangerous for the medical evacuation helicopter to land. Pararescuers finally came down to get him four hours later.
He tried to save his shattered leg for more than two years before deciding to amputate. Participating in last year’s Warrior Games prior to having his leg amputated and getting involved with the wheelchair basketball team showed him that life would go on even with one less limb.
“I thought, ‘This isn’t going to be so bad, I’m still going to be able to live my life and do stuff,’” he said.
The Warrior Games, which began last week at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, is an annual competition between military branches for wounded service members that encourages competition, camaraderie and getting back in shape after a major injury. Now in its fifth year, about 200 service members and veterans will compete in teams from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Special Operations and British military.
PHOTOS: Warrior Games lift spirits of wounded veterans
The athletes will compete in various sports including sitting volleyball, cycling, track and field, rugby, swimming and wheelchair basketball. This is the first year that the Pentagon is organizing the games, which were previously run by the United States Olympic Committee and held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“Each of you is a testament to the healing power of sport,” said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the opening of the games Friday. “Sports provide a place to come together, to learn, to grow, to rehabilitate — sports keep us going. They can fuel a sense of purpose, and they remind us that we can get back up, dust off our uniforms and push ourselves to our limits once again.”
Mr. Carter said, over the past year, more than 150,000 U.S. wounded warriors participated in 28 sports camps and 51 clinics, among other activities. The Warrior Games are run out of the Military Adaptive Sports Program, which was created in 2011 by the Department of Defense to engage wounded, ill and injured service members in ongoing, daily adaptive activities based on their interest and ability.
The Pentagon invited reporters to Quantico last week to try taking a jump shot — only with no jumping — in a scrimmage with a half-dozen members of the Marine team.
The scene inside the gym looked like an average pickup basketball game in many ways. The hoops were at the same height and free throws still came from 15 feet. But next to the court, water bottles and gym bags lay next to prosthetic legs, while on it, men zipped around in custom-made, colorful sport wheelchairs with angled wheels to prevent them from tipping over.
While they all had experienced their share of tragedy — improvised explosive device explosions, painful skin grafts, countless surgeries — these men were fast, agile athletes.
A coach gave reporters a crash course in steering the sport chairs and the basic rules of wheelchair basketball, the main difference from regular basketball being that you had to dribble the ball every two times you touched your wheel rims to not be called out for traveling.
For most of the practice time, reporters were chasing the basketball around the gym after failed dribbling attempts, struggling to pick it up off the floor from a seated position. The trick: Roll to the side of the ball, hold it against the wheel rim, and wait for it to come up.
But reporters weren’t the only ones struggling with their first time in the sport chairs.
“This is hard!” Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, commander of Marine Corps Installations Command, exclaimed as he took on the other Marines.
Maj. Gen. Ayala, who also serves as the commander of Task Force Warrior Games, said adaptive sports give the military an opportunity to take care of its own and injured service members a chance to feel like they’re still “in the game” by improving physical fitness as well as mental and social health.
“It’s really humbling. It’s an experience. I’ll obviously never know what it’s like, but I think everyone should get in a chair and see what these guys go through,” he said. “I think it really is a testament to their courage, personal strength and such a great reflection not only on them but the armed services.”
Cpl. Marcus Chischilly joked with Maj. Gen. Ayala that his chair would be tipping to the left because of all the hardware on the general officer’s chest.
“You need to make sure people enjoy it when they start — then they’ll enjoy it for life,” said Cpl. Chischilly, whose long-term goal is to coach kids in wheelchair basketball.
Cpl. Chischilly — or “Chilly” to his teammates — was on his fourth deployment when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Oct. 9, 2010. He was the eighth person in a line and says it was “just luck” that he triggered the IED, losing his left leg.
He started playing wheelchair basketball in 2011 when some other troops he recovered with at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center decided to start a team.
“I did not like being in a wheelchair whatsoever,” he said. “When they asked if I wanted to play wheelchair basketball, I said ‘no,’ because I wanted to be able to play regular basketball.”
Now Cpl. Chischilly plays for the Wolfpack, a national wheelchair basketball team of all former and current military members in San Diego.
“I was kind of reluctant in the beginning, then, once I played it a couple times, I was like, ‘I think I’m going to do this for a little while,’” he said.
In the opening basketball match of the games, Army lost to Navy 23-17.