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Military News

Altman: Veterans Wheelchair Games quite a show

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Published:   |   Updated: July 21, 2013 at 01:15 PM

To my many friends in Philly, where I spent about a dozen amazing years raking up the muck of the city of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection), prepare to be amazed.

The 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games are headed your way next summer and I can tell you from watching men and women on wheels do things most people on foot couldn't, you are in for quite a show.

For six days nearly 600 athletes and about as many coaches, family members and helpers were in Tampa spending their money and, most importantly, showing there is life after being wounded, ill or injured.

"I am deeply humbled by these athletes," Roy Hawkins Jr., deputy director of the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, told me as we stood in between men and women navigating a hellacious obstacle course and guys slamming $6,000 wheelchairs into each other during a rowdy round of Murderball. "I tried the wheelchair basketball and those guys whooped us. And they were going easy."

Putting it all together took more than two years, a logistical feat one VA worker likened to a "military operation."

And he should know. For a decade, Jonathan Esteban, the lead driving supervisor charged with getting athletes, helpers, volunteers and others from Point A to Point B unscathed, was in the Army, charged with getting tanks from Point A to Point B unscathed.

If the games were a military op, then the VA and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which put on the games, were clearly the victors. So too were the more than 3,000 volunteers who showed up to help set up, tear down, guide folks around and keep things humming.

I talked to a number of visitors, like Sharon Eddy, a VA recreational therapist from Kansas, who was at her 13th games as a coach, and will return home with happy thoughts.

"Everybody has been so warm and friendly," said Eddy, minutes after one of her athletes, Brian Price, competed in a wheelchair slalom event. "I love it here. We went to Ybor. Rode the trolley."

Well, good to see somebody has.

Rushing to the closing ceremonies, just in time to see the flaming torch heading on its way to my old home town, I was struck by the dichotomy of it all.

I was late to the ceremony (and missed the monthly Operation Helping Hand Dinner) because I was working on a late-breaking story about military rape victims testifying about the failures of the VA, the latest problem with an organization already under fire. And here I was witnessing the massive bureaucracy at its best.

So Philly, which has a far more extensive transit system (which I sorely miss, believe it or not) you have some big wheels to fill, yo.

Award well earned

You may have seen him volunteering at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital.

But the next time you see Richard Cicero, a retired Army master sergeant living in Weeki Wachee, he'll have a new honor to his name. Tuesday, he will receive a Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation in a ceremony at U.S. Central Command on MacDill Air Force Base.

Cicero, a military contractor at the time working with improvised explosive device detection dogs in Afghanistan, saved the life an injured Canadian soldier in 2010 while his unit was under enemy fire, according to Centcom. Later that year, Cicero was severely injured in an IED blast and lost his right leg and arm.

Vietnam Memorial program

Do you know someone who was killed in Vietnam? Do you have pictures of them?

If you do, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund wants you.

Well, your pictures of the fallen, anyway.

The fund was created in 2003 to build an underground educational facility near Vietnam War Memorial in Washington known as The Wall. The Education Center at The Wall will show pictures and tell stories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam, according to the fund. "It will show some of the more than 150,000 items left at The Wall and celebrate the values exhibited by America's service members in all wars," fund officials say.

The newest event for The Wall is "Call for Photos," tied to the Faces Never Forgotten campaign. Friends and families of veterans, or anyone for that matter, are encouraged to ensure that the memories and stories of those listed on The Wall are never forgotten. With the help of Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America, local organizations and volunteers in communities nationwide, the fund hopes to acquire the photographs of vets who are listed on The Wall in Washington, D.C. More than three decades after The Wall was built, there are still more than "26,551 names without faces or even a back story on the Wall," according to the fund. "This event is hoping to give every soldier the honor of being fully remembered as a person and not just a name."

For info on the Education Center at The Wall or submitting a photo, visit www.vvmf.org or call 866-990-WALL.

Afghanistan deaths

The Pentagon announced the deaths of two troops last week:

--Staff Sgt. Sonny C. Zimmerman, 25, of Waynesfield, Ohio, died July 16, in Mushaka, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his vehicle was attacked by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

--Lance Cpl. Benjamin W. Tuttle, 19, of Gentry, Ark., died July 14 at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center following a medical evacuation from the aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during a scheduled port visit in the 5th Fleet Area of Responsibility. This incident is under investigation. He was assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

There have now been 2,236 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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