I’m not a Hero—I’m a Soldier

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

On Saturday, AW2 Soldier CPT Ivan Castro appeared on MSNBC to discuss the Warrior Games and his commitment to long distance running. He competed for the Special Ops team on the ground this week at Warrior Games.

“I’m not a hero,” CPT Castro, who is blind, told the host, Dylan Ratigan. “I’m just a Soldier doing his job…I’m a leader and an officer, and a Soldier.”

When asked about what makes the Warrior Games special, he explained, “If you were to come out here, you’d see that these warriors never quit. We didn’t do it on the field of battle, and we won’t do it here. Regardless of whether we’re injured, we’re still human beings,” he added. “We can continue to serve and show the world what we’re made of. “

CPT Castro continues to serve on active duty at Fort Bragg. “I have a great command that supports me and is willing to employ me to fulfill my abilities,” said Castro.

Watch the full nine-minute interview online at MSNBC.com.


Equipment Malfunction is No Excuse

By Sarah Greer, WTC Stratcom

YouTube DoDLive

Here at the Warrior Games, everyone is buzzing about cycling. Yes, we’re ecstatic about the Army team winning four medals—two golds, two silver. Yes, we’re buzzing about the three Army Ultimate Champion candidates who rode across the finish line together, as a team. But most of all, people are talking about one AW2 Veteran, Freddie de los Santos.

De los Santos didn’t win his race, but in my mind, and the minds of most of the people here, he represents the true spirit of the Warrior Games and the Army: completing the mission, against all odds.

De los Santos started out Friday like any other race—focused, committed, and ready to give his all. But shortly after the starting gun, he noticed something wasn’t right. And with 2km to go, he realized the chain on his recumbent bike was broken.

At this point, most people would have called it a day. They’d rationalize that they’d trained hard and done everything they could to prepare. It was an equipment failure, something they couldn’t do anything about.

Not de los Santos. This Special Ops competitor wouldn’t take no for an answer. Instead of giving up, he used the equipment he had—his hands. He hand-walked himself and the bike for the last two kilometers of his 10k race, refusing to forfeit.

And the crowd went wild—people walked out onto the track behind him, cheering him on, showing their support. De los Santos didn’t let an above-the-knee amputation stop him from living life to its fullest, and he wasn’t about to let a bike chain stop him from crossing the finish line at the Warrior Games.

Check out this compelling video captured by the USO staff onsite at the race.



Leading the Way

By Tom Sileo, USO Director of Story Development

Editor’s Note: The USO is a participant in the AW2 Community Support Network.

If you take a stroll around the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, this week, the first thing you would notice is the sacrifice in your midst.

It’s hard to describe the emotion that overtakes every bone in your body when your eyes meet those of a fellow American who has sustained visible or invisible wounds while protecting our freedom. These men and women have already fought so hard for our nation, yet show the same courageous spirit while competing against one another in seven different sports.

The second thing you might notice, perhaps, is the presence of the USO at this joint U.S. Department of Defense / U.S. Olympic Committee event. While one might initially wonder what role the USO plays here, one might be wise to let Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Director COL Greg Gadson explain the meaning of the USO logo and the friendly face that always accompanies it.

“What really impresses me about the USO and their support of the men and women of the wounded warrior programs and events that go on throughout the country is that they’re always in the background,” Gadson said Thursday. “That says a lot, I think, about their organization.”

What Gadson thinks says a lot, as very few Americans have sacrificed more to give us all the right to think freely. In 2007, both of Col. Gadson’s legs were amputated above the knee after being struck by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Instead of retreating, he charged forward, devoting himself to fellow wounded warriors facing similar challenges, no matter how daunting. For the colonel, the Warrior Games is an annual culmination of the noble efforts of so many, as well as a part of his own healing process.

“To me, this event recognizes, on many different levels, the accomplishments of people who have really suffered severe and traumatic injuries, but now they can see promise in their life–they’re full of vitality and going for their dreams,” he said. “It’s about living life and being productive.”

As an adaptive, cutting-edge organization with an illustrious history behind it, the USO has made supporting wounded warriors, their Families, and their caregivers a top priority. The USO leadership team, which includes Susan Thomas, Vice President of USO Wounded Warriors, recognized the need for partnering with other fine organizations to ensure that the needs of the wounded are in the forefront of America’s post-9/11 consciousness.

“Once they’re back here from deployments, the journey’s that much longer,” said Thomas, whose husband deployed to Iraq twice as a U.S. Marine officer. “Given the landscape of the current conflicts, we had to expand our reach through our best in class partners.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel,” she continued. “We want to coordinate, collaborate, and communicate.”
Gadson made clear that the USO’s willingness to adapt means a great deal to the military, and particularly to the wounded, ill, and injured.

“They have a brand and a kind of universal recognition to them,” the colonel said of the USO. “There’s been kind of an evolution, I think, an evolution for America and how we support our servicemembers.”

There is a reason USO employees and volunteers are assisting the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Olympic Committee with Warrior Games 2011. It’s because, as Thomas noted, the event represents recovery through physical health and recreation, which leads to stronger military Families. It’s also because, as Gadson noted, it’s simply what the USO does.

“The war-wounded have made tremendous sacrifices,” he said. “The fact that the USO is now involved in that at many different levels really shows their commitment to our servicemembers and how they really continue to lead the way.”

When it comes to leading the way, few do it better than COL Greg Gadson who, through courage and foresight, turned a terrible day on the battlefield into the cause of his life. In his eyes, you see pride as he wheels himself around the U.S. Olympic Training Center, watching his brothers and sisters in arms making progress before everyone else’s.

The USO is at Warrior Games 2011 to help. Thank you to COL Gadson and his team of AW2 patriots for showing us the way.

You Can Get There From Here

By Retired SGM Vondell Brown, AW2 Advocate Support Branch

Warrior Games wheelchair basketball player SGT Kinga Kiss-Johnson prepares to take a shot.

SGT Kinga Kiss-Johnson wrote these words in magic marker on the belt of her wheelchair: “You can get there from here.” She explains that it was a big change from standing to sitting playing basketball; “life doesn’t stop” is what she sums that statement up with. Every time Kiss-Johnson sits in that chair, she sees and holds those words close to her as she straps herself in. Then it’s game on from there.

Kiss-Johnson is “KJ” on the Warrior Games Army wheelchair basketball team. She is very well loved. In fact, when the team won against the Marines the other day, SPC Juan Soto looked around and took count. He said, “Stop…where is “KJ”? Wait for ‘KJ’.” The team is not a team without “KJ” and her service dog, Balto. And soon, she and Balto completed the photo, with her dog lying down next to her.

It is remarkable that “KJ” plays basketball at all after sustaining her injuries. Kiss-Johnson was medically retired out of the Fort Gordon Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) in November 2010, receiving 100% permanent disability ratingfor combat-related injuries, including TBI, PTSD, left and right hip injuries, and spinal cord injury. It has taken years for her to recover and is an ongoing process. A true inspiration.

Sports are in her blood—she has played basketball since she was a kid. She’s a natural athlete. Standing over 6 feet tall, she takes on any competitor on the court. I remember playing against her in at one of their practices and she telling me as I tried to enter into the paint, “this is my house, get out.” And that is exactly what I did.

I asked “KJ” about her prediction for the Army wheelchair basketball team at this year’s Warrior Games. She said, “Gold. We are here for no other reason.” And from the way they beat the Marines and Navy, I totally agree.


Finals are Only the Beginning

By SSG Emily Anderson, WTC Stratcom

BG Darryl Williams stands with SPC Andy Kingsley, his family, and several members of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, NC.

The tears rolled freely from her eyes onto the ground with a splash similar to the splashes of her nephew leaving the diving board to slice into the cool, crystal clear water at the Aquatics Center pool. Sandi Thomas was proud to say SPC Andy Kingsley was her nephew.

The Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Solider, a field artilleryman with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, NC, was severely injured when he and his 13-Soldier artillery unit were attacked by a bombardment of mortars at a location about 50 miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

When the mortars started, he rushed to a nearby shelter. Looking back, seeing the other members of his squad trailing, he stepped back out of the bunker to direct them inside. As the last Soldier entered the bunker, a mortar round exploded, launching Kingsley through the air.

Kingsley, a devoted high school wrestling and football athlete, did not let losing his right leg above the knee and suffering several other injuries, derail his opportunity to play and compete in sports. The Warrior Games gives him a chance to show not only himself, but everyone else, that if you try hard enough–you have no limits.

SPC Andy Kingsley after he finished one of his swimming races during the 2011 Warrior Games.

“When I was injured, I thought normal life was out of the question for me, and now look at me,” he said.

The three days a week swimming and strength training Kingsley did at the Warrior Transition Unit before the games helped him during his 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke, and 100-meter freestyle swimming events at the 2011 Warrior Games.

During the swimming preliminaries, he qualified in all three events and is heading to the finals proving that his hard work, training, and dedication paid off.

Along with the support from his Family, Kingsley also has the support from his previous unit. More than 20 Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division showed up to cheer him on during his competition.

Kingsley plans to return to Massachusetts and pursue a degree in zoology where he would like to work  training service dogs and other service animals for wounded warriors.

He also plans to start a youth organization to provide children positive time-tested ways to have fun while avoiding unnecessary conflict. This organization will incorporate the seven Army’s core values which he feels are essential in guiding children to be better citizens and keeping them mentally focused and physically healthy.

For now, he focused on the goal at hand. As the whistle blew, Kingsley’s aunt and grandmother Annie’s eyes froze on Kingsley. The hand-drawn sign stating ”Go for the gold Kingfish” was raised high in the air, moving from side to side. They knew Kingsley was in his element as he swam to the finish line.


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