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Disabled vets turn loss into success during Wheelchair Games

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Published:   |   Updated: July 15, 2013 at 08:24 AM

TAMPA - Placing elbows on the cold surface of a banquet table, lining up a target barely more than 1 3/4 inches wide, and pulling the trigger sounds rather unremarkable.

Not so to this group.

The second-floor ballroom inside the Tampa Marriott Waterside was transformed into a firing range for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Tables lined the length of the room, accommodating 39 air rifle shooters at once.

In a sense, the steadying of each gun sight and firing of each pellet was a form of healing.

"Rifle shooting is one of those things that all veterans have in common," said Roger Sack, sports director of West Virginia's Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter. "So to go back to something that they know and loved is one of the strong factors for veterans. We also have new injuries coming from Iraq and Afghanistan who have had issues because they were shot by snipers or shot in combat. Part of it is a healing process for a veteran. Weapons, they were used to them, it was a routine thing, but getting back into that, there's a psychological benefit."

Sack understands psychological shifts. A training accident at Fort Knox, Ky., 22 years ago changed everything for Sack. He lost the use of his legs and now travels in a wheelchair.

Sunday was the first day of competition for air gun participants. Veterans had to fire 40 shots at a cluster of 12 targets from a distance of 10 meters. That had to be done in an allotted amount of time. A pellet piercing the target's bull's eye earned 10 points, while shots landing on bands further away from the center are worth fewer points. The outer ring is worth 1 point.

Cheryl Trago understood how important the competition was for her husband, Jim, a Vietnam veteran who served in both the U.S. Army and Air Force.

During his yearlong deployment to Vietnam in 1969, he was exposed to Agent Orange. The substance has caused his body to deteriorate. He has diabetes now and his eyesight is worsening. A fall in 1999 crushed vertebrae in his back, forcing him into his wheelchair.

"I'm so proud of him," Cheryl Trago, 64, said, grinning at the man who once stood her up at senior prom in 1967. "Knowing he's able to shoot, because he does love it, I'm his No. 1 cheerleader."

The Indiana transplants who have lived in Ocala the past eight years will celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary today.

This was the first time Jim Trago, a board member of the Central Florida Paralyzed Veterans of America, participated in the national event, though he has been shooting since he was a teen,.

"To shoot amongst all these Vets in wheelchairs and everything, you really have to give credit to them all," Trago, 65, said. "They are just fantastic."

Eric Hollen, a Colorado Springs resident and U.S. representative in the 2012 Paralympics Games in London, is hopeful more veterans will begin incorporating sports with their recovery.

"Every chance I have to advocate sport in the therapeutic benefit of the recovery process is great," said Hollen, who has been on the U.S. National Shooting Team since 2007. "Really, it's helping them find resources in their community that will support their hopes and dreams to reach whatever level they decide they want to achieve through sport. Whether it's recreational or national team or the Paralympics side."

Shooters participating in this national competition could lay the foundation for a spot on the national team or a shot at a Paralympics bid, Sack said.

Hollen, a U.S. Army Ranger in the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, suffered a spinal cord injury in 2001. Through his undergraduate degree and future master's degree in social work and counseling, he has dedicated himself to helping others redefine themselves following an injury.

"It's my passion to give back to the community that's suffered injury," Hollen said. "A catastrophic, life-changing injury really has the potential to really derail your identity and you have to start all over. If you don't have a strong foundation, it can be a real struggle. The sport helps shift that paradigm from loss to success."

The games run through Thursday at various venues in Tampa. Visit http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/wcg/index.asp for information.

edaniels@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1860

Twitter: @EDanielsTBO

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