Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

For Wounded Warriors, Adaptive Sports Bring Camaraderie and Confidence

Military personnel with their service dogs during swim practice Former Navy Musician 3rd Class Abbie Johnson pets her service dog Kona during swim practice at the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jacob Milham).

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

Abbie Johnson, a 32-year-old former Navy Musician 3rd Class from California, was suffering from at-times debilitating post-traumatic stress when she started distance running in 2014 and got involved in the Navy's Wounded Warrior program.

Her commitment to the program intensified over the next several years as she ran, biked and swam in several Ironman competitions. She won a state championship in cycling, and took part in the military's Warrior Games in 2016 and 2018.

Now, Johnson's next goal is to run marathons on all seven continents. She ran one on Antarctica in 2019 and hopes to finish up in Africa next year.

"Sports have really helped," Johnson said. "I just have found that setting goals and being active made my symptoms a lot better and just gives me motivation. It's really therapeutic."

The Wounded Warrior programs have been essential to helping her recover from her post-traumatic stress and regain her confidence.

"When I started out, I was a pretty good athlete, but when I got involved in the triathlons ... I never thought I'd be able to do any of this. I did not think that I'd have the endurance to compete in an Ironman."

People often talk about sports as an entertaining diversion. But at the Wounded Warrior level, sports that bring together veterans and can be adapted to accommodate disabilities are literally saving lives. And the sports and other adaptive activities are getting more widespread and popular each year.

"For the Department of Defense, the Warrior Games was really an introduction to some of those activities for servicemembers," said Sandra Mason, the Defense Health Agency's Warrior Care Recovery Coordination office program lead in Arlington, Virginia, which includes the Military Adaptive Sports Program, known as MASP.

"Throughout that process, the programs became more robust. And there was an intent to see what the service programs were providing in terms of adaptive activities and things that would help rehabilitate those that had been wounded, ill or injured."

But MASP "is so much more than sports, and the whole focus is your mind, your body, and your spiritual wellness," Mason said. "It's from a holistic perspective, but also looking at it like, "What would you like to do?" because there are some individuals who are naturally very good athletes. Even having a disability didn't stop them. But what about those individuals that are just seeking to do better, to have a healthier lifestyle, to reacclimate themselves to some type of normal activities? So, they'll get involved in the [other] aspect in things like art therapy, or music therapy, or things like meditation or yoga."

Service members must be medically cleared to participate in any given sport, she said. "There is an intent there to look at the service member from not only the physical perspective but occupational and mental health," Mason said.

Many people have no discernible physical injury but rather have "invisible wounds" such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mason said.

Military personnel during the 2019 Warrior Games
U.S. Army Spc. Brent Garlic at MacDill Air Force Base during the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games, conducted by Special Operations Command, Tampa, Florida (U.S Army photo by PFC Dominique Dixon).

There are also specialized versions of weight lifting and rowing, among other individual sports that can be adapted for those with disabilities and contribute to their quality of life. Many of the efforts are aimed at getting servicemembers "off the couch."

Transitioning out of the military is especially life-changing for these types of athletes because that is not how they imagined their life to be, Mason said. "Naturally you will encounter some folks with depression and / or any other mental health issues. This is one way to keep them involved, and keep them focused on what is that next chapter in their lives."

Family members and caregivers contribute to the effort as well, Mason said. Participants who don't return to their units often find careers outside the military in adaptive sports, she said, as trainers or coaches. Some dedicate themselves to their sports to such an extent that they become Paralympians.

Intra-service camaraderie

Johnson was in the Navy for four years, from 2012 to 2016. Since leaving the service and getting more involved in the Warrior Games program, Johnson said she's established relationships with people from all the services, and has competed against teams from Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and other international squads. Once, while still on active duty and stationed in Hawaii, she traveled to West Point, New York, for the 2016 games.

Johnson later became a surfing coach with another veterans' service organization. She said she is inspired watching other athletes with lower-limb loss, blindness, or people with "paralysis who are out there crushing it on hand bikes."

And she very much agrees with Mason about the camaraderie shared.

"Many will tell you about just how having that opportunity to develop a skill in a sport that they once thought they'd lost, or the camaraderie of being with other individuals," is lifesaving, Johnson said. "Even with competing service members, there is still a very large camaraderie among the military services."

Her initial, strong performance in her first Warrior Games "showed me that I'm strong, and showed me that if I work hard and consistently, that I can do things that I didn't think I could a few years ago," she added.

"It's a really, really empowering feeling, especially when I felt so down and so broken when I was going through my sexual assault process in the military."

For extra support for her condition, Johnson also has Kona, her golden retriever service dog. She got Kona out of desperation, and before her involvement in adaptive sports. "He was kind of my lifeline for a while," she said.

She calls her long runs "very meditative," and her other training to be something of a substitute for the many years of training to be a musician playing the flute and piccolo. Going through the worst of her PTSD, she experienced breathing difficulties and panic attacks. It was then that she truly started to lean on her Wounded Warrior community.

"Having somebody reach out to me that could help me when I was really suffering ... having these programs in place when people are kind of at their worst, when they need the most help, is really important," Johnson said.

You also may be interested in...

Caregiver Wife’s Support Instrumental to Wounded Warrior’s Recovery

Article
11/30/2021
Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Eric Heldman staying active

Eric and Crystal Heideman are not just husband and wife, but life partners navigating life as a wounded warrior and his full-time caregiver with resilience, will, and above all, love for one another.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

Meet the Matriarch of Wounded Warrior Caregivers at Walter Reed

Article
11/30/2021
Service members transporting a severely wounded soldier

For worried caregivers at Walter Reed Bethesda, Linda Rasnake is a positive force of nature.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

Wounded Warriors and Caregivers Online Resources

Article
11/29/2021
Airmen race for a loose ball during an Air Force Wounded Warrior basketball game

The Defense Department programs listed here are staffed with nearly 800 recovery care coordinators and case managers who are standing by to respond to individual queries.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Warrior Care

Mental Stress is like a ‘Check Engine Light’ Flashing–Don’t Ignore It

Article
11/29/2021
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jason David talks about his  journey of recovery through the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program during a video conversation with Defense Health Agency Command Sgt. Major Michael Gragg.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Jason David speaks about his own journey of recovery through the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Warrior Care | Warrior Care – A Virtual Show of Strength | Psychological Fitness

For Many Wounded Warriors, Not All Damage is Visible or Combat-Related

Article
11/23/2021
A picture of Alex and Allison Pate

For Air Force Staff Sgt. Alex Pate’s wife, Allison, being a caregiver to a wounded warrior has been a series of emotions, but she’s grateful for the support they’ve received along the road to his recovery.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

PATCAT Table v8

Policy

Version 8 of PATCAT Table

Warrior Care Month Recognition

Policy

Join me in recognizing Warrior Care Month, an important Department-wide effort to increase awareness of programs and resources available to wounded, ill, and injured Service members, as well as their families, caregivers, and others who support them. Established in 2008, the annual Warrior Care Month recognition occurs each November. The theme of this year's observance is "Virtual Show of Strength."

Wounded Warrior with Family

Photo
11/4/2021
Soldier sitting in gym with wife and daughter

A participant and his family watch as wounded, ill and injured service members participate in the air rifle and air pistol competitions during the 2017 Army Warrior Games Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas (Department of Defense photo by Roger Wollenberg).

Recommended Content:

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences | Warrior Care | Total Force Fitness

Tips for Caregivers – How to Take Care of Yourself and Avoid Burnout

Article
11/4/2021
Soldier sitting in gym with wife and daughter

The Human Performance Resources by CHAMP team, part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences’ Consortium for Health and Military Performance provides stress management strategies for caregivers of recovering friends, family members or loved ones.

Recommended Content:

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences | Total Force Fitness | Warrior Care

WICC Podcast

Photo
10/18/2021

Today’s female service member population is now at 17%.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Warrior Care | Total Force Fitness

Warrior Care

Video
10/14/2021
Warrior Care

DOD has no higher priority than caring for wounded, ill and injured service members and the caregivers who support them.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care | November Toolkit | Warrior Care – A Virtual Show of Strength | Caregiver Month

MHS and MOS: "Warrior Care" Town Hall

Video
6/22/2021
MHS and MOS: "Warrior Care" Town Hall

Jonathan Morris joins us to talk about Warrior Care and its importance

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

MHS Town Hall June 22 2021

Photo
6/22/2021
Picture of Jonathan Morris

MHS and Military OneSource presents a discussion with Jonathan Morris from Warrior Care.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care

MHS and MOS Town Hall: "Warrior Care"

Article
6/22/2021
Picture of Jonathan Morris

MHS and Military OneSource: To Your Health: A Discussion with Jonathan Morris from Warrior Care

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care | MHS and Military OneSource To Your Health

Recovering airman finds a new path with OWF support

Article
4/23/2021
Air Force Tech Sgt. Adam Grimm  posing for a photo

Operation Warfighter (OWF) allows Recovering Service Members the opportunity to intern with over 200 federal agencies.

Recommended Content:

Warrior Care
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 6

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.