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Military Adaptive Sports Program aids with healing our Wounded Warriors

Man in wheelchair race A Special Operations Forces wounded warrior competes in the Warrior Games selection camp at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, in February. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of this year's Warrior Games. (DoD Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)

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Retired Army Col. Michael Malone soldiered through combat deployments, traumatic brain injuries, and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. But after he became ill during a deployment in Kuwait, his military career ended. Malone was diagnosed with chronic multisymptom illness, and he credits the Department of Defense's Military Adaptive Sports Program, or MASP, with giving him focus and direction for his post-service life.

"When you end up in the Warrior Transition Program, as I did, it's because you're very sick or very injured," Malone said. "So you're in a really dark place. Adaptive sports allowed me to feel competitive again and build my athletic skills. And emotionally, the program really facilitated my recovery."

MASP is part of the DoD Warrior Care Program. It provides reconditioning activities and competitive athletic opportunities for wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans. The Military Health System is shining a spotlight on MASP for National Therapeutic Recreation Week, which highlights the importance of recreational therapy to enhance physical and emotional healing.

"Through adaptive sports, service members and veterans can improve their physical and mental quality of life throughout the continuum of recovery and transition," said Sandra Mason, director of the Warrior Care Office's Recovery Coordination Program, which includes adaptive sports.

The military draws men and women who are active, outgoing, and fit, Mason said. "Now imagine becoming injured or sick. There's a lot that goes through your mind – what do I do now? What can I do now? MASP is an avenue to gain confidence, to learn that despite what's happened, you're capable of living a productive and fulfilling life."   

Men sitting on floor playing volleyball
Athletes compete in sitting volleyball during the 2019 Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida. (DoD Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)

Mason said each service runs its own adaptive sports program following the DoD office’s guidance and policies. The services partner with volunteer organizations to offer coaching and training in activities including archery, golf, and track and field.  

Mason explained that since the Warrior Care Office began collecting data in 2016, MASP has held more than 198 clinics, five camps, and 26 regional competitions for approximately 7,000 service members and veterans enrolled. 

"I got into swimming again," Malone said. "And I learned archery. I found it really meditative. It allowed me to focus on the moment, focus on the target, and just forget about my injuries and my illness."

Another benefit, Malone says, is meeting and competing with others who are experiencing similar struggles. "You don't really have to talk about how you're feeling physically," he said. "There's acceptance of who you are and where you are in your journey."

MASP participants experience reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and weight management, Mason said.

"The program has rebuilt his confidence," said Malone's wife, Jennifer Mok. "And it's made him a lot happier."

The culminating event of MASP is the Warrior Games, an annual competition for wounded, ill, and injured service members in 12 adaptive sports: archery, cycling, golf, indoor rowing, powerlifting, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby.

The 2020 games were scheduled to occur in San Antonio Sept. 20-28 with 300 U.S. active-duty and veteran athletes as well as international military teams. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event. This year would have marked the 10th anniversary.

“The entire warrior care community is disappointed," said Marine Corps Maj. Leslie Harkness, operations officer of the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment, in a prepared statement. Harkness was lead planner for the 2020 Warrior Games. Harkness said canceling the event was the best option to ensure athletes and supporters remain healthy and safe.

Malone previously competed in the Warrior Games in swimming, archery, and cycling. He and Mok are training on their own for the Marine Corps Marathon. Malone will compete in a handcycle, which is a three-wheeled vehicle powered by arms instead of legs. Mok is running as part of a military connected fundraising team.

Mason noted that the pandemic has caused a pivot to virtual MASP events. They include video demonstrations of sports, and interviews with Paralympians and coaches.

"It's a challenging environment," Mason said. "We've had to be creative, and it's been successful. But we're all looking forward to when it's safe to resume in-person activities."

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