COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – An Afghan insurgent's homemade bomb shattered Marc Esposito's lower legs, broke his back and knocked him cold for four days. But the Air Force staff sergeant says the worst part was being torn from his Special Operations teammates who stayed in the field after he was evacuated.
A year later, Esposito says, he's found a new team fighting a different kind of battle — the U.S. military's first Warrior Games for wounded servicemen and women at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
"Just like you would in a wartime scenario or a battlefield, you want to get back into play," Esposito said Wednesday before winning his preliminary heat in the 50-meter freestyle swimming competition. "This is a new battlefield, really. It's a friendly battlefield — no one's getting hurt, no one's in a war, but we're competing with each other."
Esposito, 26, from Cameron, N.C., is among nearly 190 servicemen and women competing in the Warrior Games this week. Some use wheelchairs or artificial legs and others have scars from shrapnel or burns. Some, like Esposito, have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Some have left the military but others are still active-duty.
Coached by trainers from the military and the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paraylmpics division, they're competing in cycling, volleyball, shooting, archery, track and field and basketball as well as swimming.
They say the competion renews their sense of brotherhood, gives them goals and motivation and keeps them healthy. For many, it's an invigorating alternative to the anger, listlessness or depression that can settle in after a life-changing injury.
"You had some sort of a plan for your life at some point, and now it's like somebody threw a big wrench in the cog, and now you've got to figure out how to pull that wrench out and how to straighten that cog up so that you can move on with your life and do something different," said Marine Sgt. Michael Blair, who suffered serious knee injuries along with mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder from a mine in Iraq in 2006.
"Every one of us, I believe, goes through that where we're (mad) because we can't be with our boys, we can't be with our brothers. We're angry because we can't take the fight back to the enemy who got us," Blair said.
With the anger comes emotional strain, partly because of the constant medication for pain and infections. "There's just a whole lot of psychological stuff that goes on," he said.
Blair, 35, from Dallas, said things began to turn around for him about two years ago when he took up kayaking and again felt the physical exhilaration that exercise can bring, along with an emotional release.
"Thats really what turned all that emotional stuff around for me," said Blair, who's competing in hand cycling and basketball at the Warrior Games.
For Bradley Walker, a 29-year-old ex-Marine from White Pine, Tenn., the Warrior Games are a chance to fold into the Marine Corps' tight-knit brotherhood again.
"As soon as you meet another Marine, its like you have that instant connection," said Walker, who lost his lower legs to an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006. "I'm enjoying it immensely."
Walker is competing in sitting volleyball, sitting shot put and hand cycling.
For Matthew Brown, an ex-Marine who was shot in the leg in Iraq on Veterans Day 2004, competing with other wounded servicemen and women prods him to to do more.
"I was very self-defeating when I got out of the military," said Brown, a 25-year-old from Loysville, Pa., who is competing in standing rifle, standing pistol and sitting volleyball. "Now I'm meeting a lot more wounded guys (and) going, 'Wow, you guys are injured, either the same as me or worse than me, but you guys are doing more than what I've been doing.' But now I can do all that. There's no one saying I can't."
Esposito, the Air Force staff sergeant, said the being in the company of highly motivated athletes is a kind of medicine on its own.
"Its a very contagious thing. It just spreads. That motivation's what's going to get you better," he said.
Esposito wants to stay in Air Force Special Operations, maybe as an instructor because his injuries might make him a liability in the field. Walker plans to attend the University of Tennesee starting this fall and study computer science.
Blair is still getting treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center but wants to start his own program to help wounded servicemen and women. Brown, who works for the Defense Logistics Agency, says he may try completing a marathon in a hand cycle after his Warrior Games experience.
"Who says I can't?" he asked.