Editor’s note: These stories were produced by the Department of Defense and published here as part of a partnership with Military Times.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - The Department of Defense Warrior Games began with Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger lighting the official torch, with help from comedian Jon Stewart, during opening ceremonies for the games at the United States Military Academy.
“Being selected to light the torch is as much an honor and privilege as competing for Team Army,” Elmlinger said. “Finishing my Warrior Games career as Team Army Captain and lighting the torch at the opening ceremony is by far the most amazing experience. It’s humbling to see the support from the Warrior Transition Command throughout my time on Team Army, and I graciously thank them for allowing me to participate as torch bearer in this event.”
About 250 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and United Kingdom Armed Forces will compete for gold in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball June 15-21.
The Army’s Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, began the torch handoff to a representative of each service branch. The United Kingdom’s Army Maj. Brian Seggie handed the torch off to U.S. Special Operations Command’s Navy Lt. Ramesh Haytasingh and his son, Tobias, who carried the torch to medically retired Air Force Capt. Chris Cochrane. Navy Chief Petty Officer Ron Condrey delivered it to Marine Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Cordova who then handed it off to medically retired Spc. Terry Cartwright.
“I was very honored to hand it off to Kelly Elmlinger,” Cartwright said. “She’s a great athlete, friend and mentor.”
Cochrane said he was honored as well. “Since my strokes, I consider myself lucky; I feel like I have a ‘golden ticket’ and a second chance at life. This feels like I’m cashing in that ticket for the honor to lead my brothers and sisters on the team,” he said.
During the ceremony, comedian Jon Stewart said he doesn’t come to support the wounded, ill and injured athletes but to get support.
“[Considering] Orlando, this has been a difficult week for what I like to call team civilization. The horrors we witnessed can make you feel as though you’ve lost faith in our ability to persevere through those times,” he said.
“When I say I’m in need of your support, there’s almost nothing in this world that gives me more support than witnessing the tenacity, the resilience and the perseverance of our wounded warriors in their endeavors,” Stewart said. “They’re the ones that make me feel like we’re going to be okay.”
Stewart brought his 11-year-old son Nate so he could meet the wounded warriors firsthand.
“People ask me, ‘How do you talk to your kids about violence that occurs in this world?’ and I realized it’s time to stop telling him about the rare individuals who do harm and tell him more about the people whose names we don’t know and whose resilience and tenacity we can witness; that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to show him that the depth and strength of those whose names you may never know is the depth and strength of this country and is the depth and strength that will allow us to overcome.”
Stewart, who has done several USO tours overseas in combat zones, has also visited many times with wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda.
“I’ve seen what these individuals have to go through. They have faced the worst that humanity has to throw at them, and they decided not to allow themselves to be defined by that act, but to be defined by their actions following that act, their actions of getting up off that floor. I’ve seen the blood, sweat and tears they’ve gone through to get here, and the profanity. If you go to the physical therapy room at Walter Reed, there’s a lot of profanity,” he said with a smile.
“They do it with pride and when they fall, their colleagues and their loves ones pick them up and don’t let them give up, so I applaud the families and the caregivers here today,” he added.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., superintendent of the United States Military Academy, said he was honored USMA is hosting the DOD Warrior Games and quoted the Wounded Warrior Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“It says, ‘It’s not what you lost that counts. It’s what you do with what’s left.’ That’s what these games are all about. We’re here to celebrate ability, to celebrate resilience and to celebrate the drive to overcome adversity,” he said. “These games showcase the resilient spirit of these warrior athletes. They symbolize that all wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans can recover from serious injuries or illnesses and lead fulfilling, productive and inspiring lives.
“As these warrior athletes take the fields of friendly strife, they will show the world their indomitable spirit, their sportsmanship, their desire to excel, their tenacity and most importantly, their strength of character,” Caslen said. “These incredible men and women willingly answered their nation’s call to service. They exemplify the very best of America. They embody the resilience, discipline, the mental and physical toughness to overcome adversity to achieve their goals.”
Caslen had a special message for the athletes, families and caregivers.
“Athletes, you are a testament of strength, professionalism and dedication not only for the other survivors around the world, but also for all of us. You are our role models. You are our inspiration. You are our heroes. And to the family members and caregivers, your support of these athletes has been essential throughout their recovery and rehabilitation. You’ve been a vital source of encouragement and motivation to them and that will be just as important as they compete in these games over the next few days,” he said.
HONORING VIETNAM VETS
As a special surprise, the Golden Knights flew in a plaque and had medically retired Sgt. 1st Class Howard Sanborn, a former Golden Knights member and current SOCOM athlete, present it to retired Army Gen. Fred Franks, a Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran.
“On behalf of myself and all of my fellow wounded warriors, we would like to thank you for your service and the service of all Vietnam veterans,” Sanborn said. “Your fight to remain on active duty after being wounded helped make it possible for current wounded warriors to continue to serve. It also helped develop adaptive sports programs to help aide in the rehabilitation. We deeply appreciate your efforts, and it’s my honor to present to you the heart of the team medals. These medals represent the spirit of the Warrior Games.”
Franks, who is a below-the-knee left-leg amputee, said he was very touched.
“I was very moved and am deeply appreciative and inspired to be here to receive something like this on behalf of all my fellow wounded warriors and in the company of such great Americans,” he said.
During Desert Storm, Franks commanded the 7th Corps, leading 146,000 U.S. and British soldiers in an 89-hour, 250-kilometer attack as part of the coalition that liberated Kuwait.
“I felt honored and privileged to be able to do that as an amputee, but I wasn’t thinking about being an amputee while that was going on and that’s the whole idea. You don’t focus on that. It’s not what you don’t have, it’s what you have that counts. It’s getting back up and going on that counts,” he said.
Stewart talked about encouraging disabled service members and veterans to give adaptive sports a try.
“What I’ve found in talking to men and women who got involved with the military is that they are goal -oriented,” he said. “They thrive on the idea of an end result. What are the things you miss when you’re not in the Army? You miss the camaraderie? You miss the action? You miss the goals? These are the things the games provide, and they help give people a sense of purpose again, make them feel like they belong somewhere. I’m still me; I can still compete. I think that part of it is really important.”
The Warrior Games were created in 2010 as an introduction to adaptive sports and reconditioning activities for service members and veterans.
Adaptive sports and reconditioning are linked to a variety of benefits for wounded, ill, and injured service members across all branches of the military. Benefits include less stress, reduced dependency on pain and depression medication, fewer secondary medical conditions, higher achievement in education and employment, and increased independence, self-confidence, and mobility.
Admission to Warrior Games competitions is free and open to the public.