As U.S. swimmer Melissa Stockwell competes in three events in the Paralympics Games this week, there is little of the media frenzy that surrounded megastar Michael Phelps during the Olympics. But her presence in Beijing’s Water Cube is in some ways more remarkable: Stockwell started swimming seriously less than four years ago, after her left leg was blown off by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
With more than 31,000 U.S. soldiers left permanently disabled by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are, potentially, many more veterans who could follow Stockwell’s path. That’s why the U.S. Olympic Committee — seeing both a need and an opportunity — is proposing a major initiative to expand sports-focused rehabilitation programs for disabled soldiers and, in the process, perhaps swell the ranks of the U.S. Paralympic team.
“The assumption is that (disabled soldiers) were active in the first place,” said Steve Bull, director of government relations for the USOC. “They probably have a greater motivation to become active again and would be more likely to jump in and be served by programs like this. Who better to head up a program than the Paralympics?”
But the USOC’s initial effort this year to secure federal funding for the Paralympics program has run afoul of traditional veterans service organizations and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which could end up footing a big portion of the bill for the sports program. These critics argue that the increased focus on sports rehabilitation would siphon away scarce resources from essential services, from core rehabilitation programs and, potentially, away from the veterans.
Legislation approved by the House and a similar bill under consideration in the Senate would authorize $10 million a year from the VA budget for the USOC Paralympic initiative. In testimony before a House committee in June, VA official R. Keith Pedigo described the bill as “unnecessary.”
“Although we applaud USOC’s efforts to bring more veterans into their elite-athlete competitions, we believe VA’s rehabilitative events are much better suited to providing the services veterans need,” said Pedigo, an associate deputy undersecretary in the VA.
Kerry Baker, associate legislative director of the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans, agrees with that assessment.
‘A crying need’
“The veterans health system has been underfunded for decades,” he told msnbc.com. “There is a crying need for the VA to have really good screening and treatment programs for traumatic brain injury, PTSD … all kinds of health care and mental and physical health treatments. Ten million dollars can go a long way toward helping a lot more people than a relative few who might be Olympic athletes.”
At heart, this is a turf war, sparked by the USOC's pursuit of government funding. But it has triggered a broader debate about how to best allocate limited resources to treat and reintegrate returning veterans facing an array of obstacles, ranging from depression to paralysis.
The USOC has just started tapping into Department of Defense funds for disabled veterans. The 2008 defense budget authorized $5 million to bolster the USOC’s existing Paralympic Military Program — clinics and camps that introduce disabled veterans to adaptive sports, provide training and opportunities to become mentors to other recovering soldiers. A separate defense budget item, added in 1996 but previously left untouched, is being used by USOC to support the U.S. Paralympic team — 213 disabled athletes including Stockwell and 15 other veterans — currently competing in Beijing. The American athletes are among more than 4,000 athletes from some 150 countries competing in 20 sports at the Paralympics.
The USOC says the need among disabled veterans exceeds those resources, prompting it to seek the VA funding. The USOC proposal was incorporated into the House bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., whose district includes an Olympic training center. If approved, the VA funding and the money from the defense budget would roughly double what the USOC currently spends on Paralympic programs.
“We are asking the government to invest substantially for significant and immediate impact,” Charlie Huebner, head of USOC’s Paralympic division, told msnbc.com. He said the federal funding would be used to create 250 community sports rehabilitation programs, in partnership with local park and recreation departments, veterans organizations and groups that provide adaptive sports programs for the general population, such as Disabled Sports USA.
USOC: Proposal not about team-building
“The program would … provide support to thousands of military personnel after they leave hospital rehabilitation programs,” he said. “… This is our concern. We want to ensure that there are programs available when they get home.”
The USOC and its supporters say the emergence of top disabled athletes would be merely a side benefit.
“The grass-roots focus is to get people engaged in physical activity … which leads to a reduction of stress, increase in self-esteem and a reduction of secondary medical issues,” said Huebner. “No doubt … if you have enough people involved, a small percent will want to pursue a greater level of competition.”
But longtime veterans service organizations already in the business of providing adaptive sports opportunities worry that the USOC will inject too much competition into existing events run by the VA and its partners, including the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, the Golden Age Veteran Games and the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
The Disabled American Veterans is a major sponsor of the Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo., which has allowed thousands of disabled veterans to try skiing and other winter sports —often for the first time.
“These events are 100 percent rehabilitative, and that’s how everybody wants them to remain,” said Baker, the group’s legislative liaison.
He said the USOC has always been welcome to attend and see whether there are candidates for higher levels of competition, but that its involvement in running the programs could undermine their original purpose.
A challenge, not a competition
“You’re talking about the difference between someone who is an elite athlete … and one who is trying to stand up for a few minutes on a ski,” Baker said. “The sole purpose is for the participants to challenge themselves — to build physical, mental and emotional strength. … Anything that would subvert that by introducing competitiveness between these people would go against what they were designed to do.”
The USOC points to the Paralympic Military program, which has introduced some 3,900 newly disabled veterans to adaptive sports at the community level in 2008 alone, as evidence that it can provide broader services to help veterans resume an active life, not merely cultivate a few stars. It also has provided coaches and facilities for major events, such as VA sports clinics. It also has sought to assure opponents that it has no designs on existing veterans’ events.
“Several (groups) thought we wanted to run the National Wheelchair Games,” says USOC’s Huebner, who believes the debate over the organization’s proposal has been based on misunderstanding. “We don’t. We want to expand on what (other groups) are doing back into the community.”
Filner, who sponsored the House bill to fund the USOC program, is more critical of the services the VA and its longtime partner organizations have provided.
“The (veterans service organizations) and the VA have not really adapted to this new generation,” said Filner, who is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He says some of their rehabilitation offerings, such as horseshoes, billiards and bowling, “are not real sports.”
“These younger kids, people who may have been active (in sports) in their high school or college — their whole mental attitude is that they will never be human again,” he said. “... So this is aimed at a younger audience.”
From Walter Reed to Beijing
Stockwell, 28, personifies what he is talking about. She was a competitive athlete — a gymnast, diver and pole vaulter — before joining the Army. After the May 2004 blast took her lower leg, she spent more than a year at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., enduring 15 surgeries to address infection, which took six inches more off the limb. As soon as she could resume exercising, she discovered swimming was a great way to get a workout.
“I knew I wouldn’t really be myself again until I got back into some sort of athletics,” she said. When a USOC representative gave a presentation on the Paralympics at the medical center, she knew it was something she wanted to pursue.
Stockwell continued swimming after moving back to Minnesota for school, and began to travel to Paralympics swim meets around the country. In January, she moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to work full time with specialized coaches. In April time trials, she posted times fast enough to qualify for the U.S. team in three events — the 100-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle.
In the first two of her events, with one remaining, Stockwell has not reached the finals, but her main goal was getting to Beijing. She expects more of her fellow disabled soldiers to follow suit.
“You have a group of young individuals (who are) athletic by nature, with a love for their country,” she says. “So absolutely there will be a lot of new (Paralympic) athletes in the coming years from the wars.”
But the main thing is to be able to get them involved in some sort of athletics, she said.
“The elite level is not for everyone,” Stockwell says. “But to get out and do something is extremely beneficial. After you try it, I think you’re very excited about what you can still do when you might not have realized it before.”
Group hopes Senate will let bill expire
Baker, of the Disabled American Veterans, remains skeptical. He said his organization is hoping that the Senate version of the bill authorizing VA money for the USOC program will die when Congress adjourns in early October.
But some critics have been won over by the USOC pitch. The nonprofit Paralyzed Veterans of America initially called the bill “deeply troubling” but later withdrew its objections. Officials of the group said they were mollified when their organization was explicitly included in the bill as a potential partner for USOC’s community programs and given a seat on the review board that would approve grants under the bill.
“Basically there’s an opportunity to take a leadership role in terms of sports and recreation,” said Andy Krieger, director of sports and recreation for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which offers sports programs for veterans with spinal cord injuries. “A lot of people are doing a lot of things on a lot of different levels. … I think one thing going on is that USOC Paralympics is taking the opportunity to kind of connect the dots.”