For many Olympic athletes, it has been a challenging road to London. For South African sprinter and double amputee Oscar Pistorius, the path to competition was a Herculean effort. Known as "Blade Runner" because of his J-shaped carbon-fiber prosthetics, Pistorius has captured the support of fans around the world and has a loyal fan base in our catastrophically combat wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan.
To our wounded warriors, Pistorius is not only a role-model, but a tremendous ambassador to those unfamiliar with amputees and prosthetics. Cheering him the past two weeks as he defies preconceived barriers about his anatomical structure is both exciting and hopeful for our returning wounded. Running, however, was a small hurdle compared to being accepted and qualified to compete.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field, ultimately qualified him for the London games after thwarting his efforts for Beijing in 2008. The balk at letting him compete was due to examining his differences to determine if there was a competitive edge. Fortunately, the IAAF recognized that Pistorius got to this level through extreme dedication, hard work, and perseverance, not because of a "handicap advantage." Oxymoron? Somehow, there are still those who think not having legs and running on prosthetics give him an advantage. Certainly, these people have never actually seen someone run on prosthetics.
Our combat wounded amputees find great strength and inspiration from Pistorius. These wounded vets, in many ways like Oscar Pistorius, are seeking acceptance on their merits. Unlike any previous military conflict, we have more surviving severely injured returning home. Nearly 47,000 U.S. service members have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past decade, and approximately 1,500 are amputees. Almost 35 percent of them have lost more than one limb, including double, triple and even quadruple amputees -- something unheard of in prior wars. Fortunately, body armor, field medicine, and the joint military service team have contributed not only to saving lives, but enabling the possibility for these men and women to achieve whatever goals they may have.
Working closely with doctors, nurses, and therapists, I spent my final months in the Marine Corps supporting the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of our wounded into the community. Their focus to surmount the myriad daily challenges of life with prosthetics was absolutely inspiring. Whether it was bathing, dressing, walking, or even running, our wounded service members' grit and determination motivated all supporting their efforts. At each milestone, acceptance of their "new normal" and desire to pursue the next goal humbled each of us.
Watching Pistorius defy odds and compete in London reminds me of the numerous severely combat wounded I've served with at the military hospitals in D.C. These veterans can more readily associate with everything Pistorius has accomplished. Certainly they would love to cheer him to the medal stand, but the fact that he qualified and is competing with the best in the world is already an immense accomplishment. Moreover, his demonstrated resolve to win over skeptics with his natural, unaided ability is what makes the Olympics so endearing.
In the coming years, more and more combat wounded veterans and amputees will enter society and seek free market opportunities. Hopefully, we can focus on their different abilities and not their disabilities. The victory in this subtle perspective toggle will provoke not only the best in our wounded warriors, but in us too.
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