Monday, November 23, 2009

Disabled vet finds sports passion in sitting volleyball

From Jenni Carlson's sports column in The Daily Oklahoman:

EDMOND, Okla. — Ed O’Neil (pictured) went to war for his country, battled for it, even sacrificed for it.

The master sergeant was commanding an Army Special Forces team a year and a half ago in Iraq when an armor-piercing explosive ripped through his Humvee. It also ripped through the lower part of his right leg.

That leg was amputated just below the knee.

Now, O’Neil has a new mission — being part of the U.S. Paralympic sitting volleyball team.

He is one of eight wounded warriors taking part in a developmental camp this weekend at Central Oklahoma. All of them are new to the sport, which is played just like the standing game except for the lowered net, smaller court and sitting players. But all of them are eager to learn and driven to succeed.

At a time when injured soldiers are coming home in droves, this is a chance like no other.

"It’s just a gift from God for me,” O’Neil said, sweat from a morning practice session beading just below his graying hairline. "If we were ever to win a gold medal, it’s really not about that.

"It’s about the journey.”

Still, O’Neil never imagined his path would lead back to a volleyball court. Even though he played volleyball in high school, it became a thing of the past when he joined the Army. He rose through the ranks and became part of Special Forces, and over the next decade, he was sent around the world.

In the spring of 2008, he was on his third deployment to Iraq.

"I’d seen a lot of people injured or killed,” he said.

O’Neil, however, had come away unscathed.

In the days after his unit arrived in Iraq, his team set about delivering supplies to other special forces units around the country. One day, their convoy was traveling through Najaf, a holy but dangerous city south of Baghdad, with O’Neil in the lead vehicle. He’d put his best soldier in the driver’s seat and his best gunner on the vehicle’s machine gun.

As they traveled through town, the lead vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device made to pierce armor.

"It goes in one side,” O’Neil said, "and it’ll just keep on going and go on out the other side.”

All of the men in the Humvee were knocked out.

When O’Neil came to, the vehicle had stopped moving after hitting a median. The driver was slumped over, dead. The gunner had been ejected from the vehicle and onto the sidewalk.

Everything was on fire.

"I was freaking out,” O’Neil said. "It was just a nightmare.”

His life changed in a moment. Much of his lower left leg had been blown off. There would be dozens of surgeries to try to repair the damage, but in the end, his leg would be amputated just below his knee.

O’Neil praises the military’s medical system. It did right by him. The same goes for his family.

Despite that top-notch care, O’Neil realized he needed to do more than get well. He needed to get back. He’s a husband, a father, a go-getter, a leader, and that didn’t change that horrible day in Iraq.

"I was really unsure what I was going to do with my life,” O’Neil said.

He isn’t alone.

While wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed many American soldiers, many more have been injured. They want the highest quality of life possible, and that includes being physically fit.

That’s why the military started doing sports camps for injured soldiers about five years ago. The soldiers are exposed to everything from wheelchair basketball to sitting volleyball to adaptive weight lifting.

The benefits have been numerous. Physical rehabilitation is enhanced. Mental well-being is improved.

"I think it really goes back to finding ability again,” said Kallie Quinn, who works with the U.S. Paralympics Military Program. "So many of them have been so active. Then when they’ve been injured, they lose a piece of that ability side of them.”

They also lose the camaraderie and the teamwork that is such a part of the military.

That’s one of the reasons Daniel Jacobs soaked up every moment of this weekend. Like O’Neil, he lost the lower part of his right leg to a roadside bomb. While he works in the Wounded Warrior Battalion helping others like him adapt, there was something different about being part of the sitting volleyball camp.

"You can get together, relate, joke around,” Jacobs said. "You open up more to these people than you do for anybody else.”

The above-knee amputees give the below-knee amputees a hard time.

"Oh,” they’ll chide, "you still have your knee.”

Jacobs knows some people might think them sick or twisted for saying such things, but he swears that’s not the case.

"We just have fun with it,” he said. "This is what we have.”

And they intend to make the most of it.

O’Neil has already agreed to move to Edmond and be a resident athlete in training. His wife and three kids even came to town this weekend so they could look at houses and plan their move.

"I’d be a fool not to stick with this program,” he said. "I’m going to ride this as long as possible.”