In Athletic Contests, Air Force Wounded Warriors Find A Family – San Antonio Express-News

Air Force Reserve Tech Sgt. Kevin Greene has felt at home on a basketball court since childhood, and it shows.

The most gifted player out there, he drives to a layup surrounded by opponents in blue jerseys, and minutes later swiftly moves for an easy two points to tie the game, 4-4. He feeds the ball to a white-shirted teammate under the hoop for a score. His team can’t hold onto the lead, but Greene, No. 24 on your program, scores the winning basket in overtime.

A below-the-knee amputee, he does it all from a wheelchair.

Greene and more than 300 other airmen are competing this week at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph for a chance to enter the 2022 Warrior Games in August in Orlando, Fla. The Warrior Games trials end Sunday.

Kevin Greene brings up the ball during wheelchair basketball competition at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Monday. Four teams of wounded warriors were competing for a chance to represent the Air Force at the 2022 Warrior Games in Orlando, Fla.

Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News “It’s good to be around other veterans that have similar injuries, but in addition you know that every veteran is going through something. Like, you know every veteran experienced something in either war or at home, so it’s good to be around other people that understand you,” said Greene 31, of Palm Bay, Fla.

“And wheelchair basketball is just the icing on the cake because it brings me peace.”

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The wounded airmen compete in 13 sports — archery, cycling, track, field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, rowing, power lifting, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair rugby and, for the first time in Warrior Games’ history, golf.

This week is all about making the cut, with Greene, retired Tech Sgt. Heather Robles, Carly Johnson and Garrett Kuwada vying on different teams for the chance to represent the Air Force at the Warrior Games against wheelchair basketball players from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command.

They’ve traveled a long way to take their shot. Kuwada, who suffered a brain aneurysm and bleeding that left him paralyzed from the stomach down as a result of spinal cord injuries, flew from Hawaii — even though he hates to fly.

Jonathan Harrison competes in powerlifting at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Tuesday. Wounded warriors were vying in a dozen sports for the chance to represent the Air Force at the 2022 Warrior Games in Orlando, Fla.

Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News Robles, who copes with dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes victims to have muscle weakness and skin rashes, came to San Antonio from Cheyenne, Wyo., while Johnson lives in the Florida Panhandle and treasures the pristine beaches there.

Johnson has what she and other athletes call an “invisible” disability — PTSD, anxiety and a skin-picking disorder — all driven by a sexual assault at a base where she was stationed. She finds wheelchair basketball, and those in it, a refuge from a world that doesn’t always understand her.

It’s a feeling shared by other wheelchair basketball players, including Kuwada, 51, of Makakilo, Hawaii, whose unexpected medical crisis left him isolated and even suicidal as he struggled to recover.

“I’d be dead because I had deep depression and stuff like that. I’ve already had to be an in-patient because I’ve attempted and now, like I said, it gives me a sense of purpose,” he said. “So you know I have something to look forward to.

“I get to see Carly or anybody else that’s all part of the Air Force Wounded Warrior program. And then you just keep meeting people and meeting people, and your network of support and network of family just gets bigger and bigger, so you always have somebody that you can reach out to if you need to,” Kuwada said,

Johnson, who turned 26 on Tuesday, is thankful for the acceptance.

Kevin Greene, left, celebrates with teammates Byron Harts, center, and Justin James after they won first place during wheelchair basketball competition at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Monday. Four teams of wounded warriors were competing for a chance to represent the Air Force at the 2022 Warrior Games in Orlando, Fla.

Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News “Just the coaches and all the other athletes, and not even in the adaptive sports program,” she said. “Every single wounded warrior that I have met, they have not judged me for how I look, they have never judged me for how I talk, for who I am, they have never judged me for anything.”

Robles, an Iraq veteran who was posted in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Tallil, agrees — everyone here understands, and “when you’re playing the game you forget about everything else and you give it everything you have.”

“And the pain I’m in and all of that, it’s just kind of goes away when I’m playing because my mind is just on the game and the family I have here,” she said.

The Air Force medically discharged Robles, 39, after more than 18 years in the service. She served three times in Iraq — in 2003, 2004, and 2005 — and believes her skin disorder was caused by burn pits she was exposed to during those combat tours.

Ben Seekell goes for two as Sean McNamara, left, and Kevin Greene defend during wheelchair basketball competition at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Monday. Four teams of wounded warriors were competing for a chance to represent the Air Force at the 2022 Warrior Games in Orlando, Fla.

Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News A registry created by a Texas-based advocacy group, Burn Pits 360, includes more than 10,000 veterans. As the issue has gained a higher profile, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, released Sept. 11, 2020, found three symptoms associated with burn pits — coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. It uncovered no medical conditions associated with exposure to them.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has since launched a review of particulate matter pollution and added three conditions as presumptions — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — while continuing to review health outcomes for veterans. Around 286,301 veterans and service members have signed up with the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Pit Registry.

More than 31,600 are from Texas.

“I was very into soccer and then after that I ran a lot. I would run half-marathons and races and then weight lift and when I got sick it kind of all stopped,” Robles recalled. “So I think it’s kind of good to get back into, and I guess kind of makes you forget and feel like you’re back to before everything.

“A lot of times they’re going through the same type of stuff or even if they’re not they understand the stigma, I guess, that can be with getting out of the military because of medical reasons and especially with invisible illnesses. People look at you and think that you’re fine … (and) don’t understand what your problem is.”

Greene had to fight to stay in the Air Force after losing part of his left leg in a 2014 motorcycle accident. He was headed to the gym, waiting for the light to turn green, when everything went black.

He awoke in a hospital.

Randolph was the scene of Greene’s battle to stay in the Air Force. A medical evaluation board asked him to do the standard physical fitness test, which included a 1½-mile run, as well as sit-ups and push-ups. He got an 84.5 — satisfactory — and stayed in uniform.

“I’m proud of that day,” Greene said.

He tried everything after entering an adaptive sports camp at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2018, from swimming and sitting volleyball to archery, rowing and wheelchair rugby.

Greene settled on wheelchair basketball. It was a chance to play the game he’d always loved.

“I got back in my lifestyle because that was a big part of me, or I feel like it was a big part of my identity, anyway,” he said.

Asked what he liked most about the game, Greene said, “I’m out there on the court, I literally don’t hear the music, I don’t hear anything. I’m just in the flow, it’s like I’m in a perfect zen and it relaxes me.”

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