RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — When James Stuck regained consciousness in a military hospital in late-2005, he realized something was wrong even before he looked down at the stump where his lower right leg had been.
A day earlier, the Army infantryman, then 21, had been driving a Humvee outside the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk when it was hit by three rounds of artillery buried under the road. The vehicle flipped, knocking Stuck out and smashing his leg.
Much of the leg was quickly amputated, and Stuck wondered how he’d carry on. The answer came from a U.S. Olympic Committee program that has turned hundreds of disabled veterans into athletes.
This week, Stuck and three other Iraq war veterans are in Rio de Janeiro as part of the U.S. delegation to the Parapan American Games, which has drawn some 1,300 disabled athletes from around the hemisphere to compete.
For Stuck and other Iraq war veterans, the thrill of athletics has brought both physical and mental healing and given them something to think about other than their often painful memories of the war.
Stuck is a member of the U.S. sitting volleyball team. He uses his arms and torso to move around the court and hit the ball over the nearly four-foot-high net. On Wednesday, the squad beat Canada. The team plays Brazil Friday for their division title, then moves on to the overall semifinals.
“Once I got into sports, I realized I could continue doing what I love to do and that amputation is not the end of your life,” said Stuck, who lives in Edmond, Okla., with other members of his team.
“It’s like being reborn because you have to learn to do everything again.”
The Olympic committee’s veterans program so far has helped about 400 people, including more than 200 who’ve fought in the current Iraq war, said John Register, associate director of outreach and development for the committee’s Paralympic branch.
Some veteran athletes are seeking slots in next year’s Paralympic Games in Beijing, the biggest event in the disabled sporting world.
Register served in the 1990-91 Gulf War, but he lost his left leg in a freak hurdling accident in 1994. He said getting into swimming and track and field after the accident helped him carry on with his life.
“It’s about accepting the injury and moving past that,” he said. “Sports doesn’t allow a person to feel sorry for themselves, especially when they’re around other people in exactly the same situation they’re in.”
Veterans have long used sports for rehabilitation. In fact, the international disabled athletics movement was started by a group of World War II veterans in the United Kingdom who organized the first disabled games in 1948.
Veteran Scott Winkler, of Augusta, Ga., said he discovered his “hidden talent” as a shot putter and discus thrower after falling off an ammunition truck in Tikrit, Iraq, in May 2003 and injuring his spine so badly that he was paralyzed below the waist.
Back in the United States, he first took up fishing and won second place in two disabled veterans tournaments. That led to wheelchair basketball and then, after taking part in a 2006 event organized by the U.S. Olympics Committee, track and field.
Winkler won the gold medal in the shot put Thursday and set a world record in his injury-level category, throwing the 11-pound ball nearly 34 feet while strapped into a special throwing chair. Lightly built before his injury, the 34-year-old now has hulking shoulders and bulging forearms.
“It’s given me an outlet in life, and everybody needs an outlet,” Winkler said. “It’s given me something to focus on and get better at.”
It’s also helped Winkler take his mind off memories of the war that are still so painful that he was pushed to the verge of tears when asked about them.
“You try to block things out, and it’s hard,” he said.
Even when sporting glory wasn’t at hand, the veterans seemed to be happy this week just competing.
Powerlifter Kortney Clemons, 27, was already looking forward to future competitions Wednesday after being knocked out in the first round of his event. The State College, Pa., resident walked out of the arena with the help of an artificial leg sheathed in a red-and-black Nike sneaker.
He lost the lower part of his right leg after being hit by shrapnel from an improvised bomb while serving as a medic in southern Baghdad in February 2005. The explosion also killed three U.S. military police.
“I thought it was a dream, that I was going to wake up and everything was going to be all right again,” he said. “You have so many plans, and this definitely changed those plans for me.”
Before the war, he had aspired to becoming a professional football player who could thrill the crowds every Sunday. Although he didn’t come through Wednesday, his sporting dreams were still alive, he said.
“We lost three guys on that day and those three guys would do whatever they could to be in my shoes,” he said. “I just want to take advantage of life because I know they would take advantage of life as well.”