LONDON -- The road to the Invictus Games was a grueling one. None of the 12
competitors from United States Special Operation Command chose it willingly.
Although the 12 competitors from SOCOM were eligible to compete as a result
of a catastrophic injury or a serious illness; once at the start line, these
warriors undertook the journey with grit and determination, arriving at a
new highpoint as part of the team of U.S. athletes participating in the
inaugural Invictus Games in London.
The games, an initiative of the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of
Cambridge and Prince Harry, is an international sporting event for wounded
warriors meant to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a
wider understanding and respect for those who serve their countries.
The 12 SOCOM athletes joined 22 Army, 20 Marine Corps, 22 Navy, and 22 Air Force members as part of the U.S. team. Every one of them exemplified the spirit of the Invictus Games and the power of adaptive sports to promote rehabilitation.
After attending the 2013 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., Prince Harry was inspired to launch the international adaptive sports event for military members and veterans. Nine months later, the Invictus Games hosted nearly 400 athletes from 13 nations in a world-class event involving cycling, swimming, track and field, archery, wheelchair rugby, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, indoor rowing, and powerlifting.
“I can only begin to imagine how challenging the journey of recovery is, but the admiration I have for these men and women to move beyond their injury is limitless,” said Prince Harry during the opening ceremonies of the Invictus Games, Sept. 10.
Participating in track and field, powerlifting and cycling, Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro from Cibolo, Texas, overcame a great deal of adversity. After suffering third degree burns on more than 80 percent of his body from an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2006, he was given less than a 15 percent chance to live. However, after more than 120 surgeries, Del Toro remains on active duty and credits sports for a great deal of his rehabilitation.
“I’ve always been competitive. When your life changes as dramatically as mine, there’s a chance you might give up. I never let that happen to me, and I never will. Everyone knows if you quit before you start, you’re done. I will never let the guys who set that bomb get the satisfaction that they ruined my life,” said Del Toro.
While most of the athletes have previously participated in different para-Olympic style competitions, including the Warrior Games, the experience at the Invictus Games was unprecedented said U.S. team captain, retired Special Forces Sgt. Maj. Chris Self. The Invictus Games drew crowds and excitement to the site of the 2012 London Olympics.
“The Invictus Games provided an unmatched international opportunity for wounded, ill, and injured service members to showcase the critical role adaptive sports play in their recovery and day-to-day lives,” said Self. “I'm grateful to Prince Harry and Great Britain for bringing together brothers and sisters in arms from around the world, who once served side-by-side on the battlefield, to the athletic field, where we could support each other again, even in competition.”
This was also a once-in-a lifetime experience for 21 SOCOM family members who had the opportunity to accompany their competitors to the Games with the sponsorship of the Fisher House.
“Being there for him meant a lot to me!” said Danielle Radetic, the wife of retired Army Warrant Officer Anthony Radetic, a former Black Hawk pilot and Green Beret who suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a motor vehicle accident. “Anthony puts so much effort into everything he does, and I love being there to see the end result. I see his daily handcycle training routine, and it was amazing to watch him battle the top competitors and take second place, only inches away from first.”
The SOCOM team was represented in all the individual and team sports events. Their performance resulted in two gold and two silver medals in cycling; two bronze medals in team rowing; one bronze medal in team recurve archery; two silver medals in seated volleyball and two silver medals in wheelchair basketball.
“It was especially uplifting knowing that I was able to achieve a medal for Team USA while still being in an operational unit,” said Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Smith, who is assigned to the 9th Military Information Support Operations Group, Fort Bragg, N.C. “Even better, I was able to be on a rowing relay team with a fellow SOCOM team member, Ivan Castro. Without him, that medal would not have been possible.”
The SOCOM team was selected among special operations forces, active duty and veterans, who currently participate in the SOCOM Care Coalition Adaptive Sports Program. The Care Coalition is the SOCOM office responsible for providing support to wounded, ill and injured special operations forces and their families.
“Whether a person is wounded in the battlefield, diagnosed with a serious illness or injured in an accident, our job is to provide the advocacy and support to facilitate their recovery,” said Col. Cary Harbaugh, SOCOM Care Coalition director. “Besides adaptive sports, the Care Coalition helps our members navigate the medical system and obtain the support required for each individual situation.”
As part of a White House delegation to the Games, Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, praised the athletes’ “energy, positive spirit and resilience. They make Americans so proud.”
After four days of competition, the athletes left London with an experience that not only made a positive impact on their lives but also helped widen the public’s understanding of their struggles, victories and relentless spirit.
The 400 wounded, injured and sick service members who participated in the games embodied the meaning of the word invictus, the Latin word for 'unconquered.' Their stories symbolized the fighting spirit immortalized in William Ernest Henley’s famous 1875 poem of the same title, which proclaims: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”