Hundreds of veterans and service members are set to compete in the annual Valor Games Midwest.
The event for the disabled begins Monday and ends Wednesday. Competitions include cycling, archery, powerlifting and indoor rowing.
The event is geared toward veterans or active service members who have been wounded or are ill. The first Valor Games started in Chicago two years ago, with events spreading to San Francisco, San Antonio and Durham, North Carolina.
Chicago’s sponsors include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Chicago Park District. Organizers say about 220 participants have registered for this year’s games. Among those participating is Air Force Sergeant Israel Del Toro, or DT.
A bomb exploded under his truck eight years ago in Afghanistan. Del Toro lost fingers on both hands, had over 130 surgeries, got skin grafts for most of his body and wears a brace on his right leg. But for the next few days, he’s cycling, powerlifting, and competing in the discus and shotput contests.
“I thought all throughout my therapy, I could never work out at free weights, and when they encouraged me, ‘Come on DT, try it, try it,’ I ended up winning gold in it,” Del Toro says. “That first Valor Games, I always say, that was the first time I actually got under a bench and started working out again.”
Four years ago, Del Toro was the first disabled airman to re-enlist. For veterans who have left the military, he says the games can help them regain part of that experience.
“They can start acting like they’re back in the military, tell the same jokes they used to, pick on each other, ‘cause that’s just the camaraderie you don’t get anywhere else,” he says.
Howard Wilson, a retired Marine Corps veteran, agrees. After leaving the Marine Corps, he lost most of his vision through glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve. He has competed at all three Valor Games in Chicago, and says despite the competition, everyone was working together at his first competition.
“You had competitors, but everybody was still on the same side. We egged each other on, we made such each other do our best,” he says. “The disability just opened up a new chapter in my life. I knew my vision was getting worse, I got depressed, started thinking about what I couldn’t do. You see things slipping away: driving, your independence, you don’t have to stop yourself from doing what you were doing initially, you just have to find other ways of doing it.”
He says he is reinventing himself through sport, and hopes to qualify for the US Paralympic wrestling team.
Sport makes it easier to cope with injuries and depression, says retired Army Sergeant Noah Galloway. He was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq and lost his left arm above the elbow and his left leg above the knee. He has since run two marathons and a series of races, including two “Tough Mudder” obstacle course races. He gets sponsored to run, but doesn’t call himself a professional athlete. He says veterans just need to start participating.
“I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve suffered the depression. I wanted nothing more than to have my arm and leg back, but when I accepted the fact that this is who I am, and I got up, and I got back in shape, and I started taking care of myself, everything turned around,” Galloway says. “We’re not looking for Paralympian athletes, we’re looking to take care of our veterans.”
Alan Yu is a WBEZ metro desk intern. Follow him @Alan_Yu039