Despite amputations above the right knee and on the left hand (partial), there seems to be no stopping point for Burgos and his service dog Gunny. Burgos is currently well on his way to a degree with magna cum laude honors and uses shooting to sharpen his goal-setting for school and overall success in life. For him, “Short-term goal is make a good shot. Long-term goal is win the match.”
Walking into the range on Friday with a gold medal in archery already under his belt, McDaniel didn’t let the pressure get to him. After an impressive qualification and final, he won another gold in open air pistol to contribute to his team’s dominance. Competing in the Warrior Games for him is a huge honor, and something that is simply, “hard to put into words.”
A Navy hospital corpsman, Sclater was most of the way through the screening process to join a Special Ops group when he injured his spinal cord and was unable to continue. This year is his first time attending the Warrior Games, which he describes as “humbling” and a “huge honor.” While he cannot run anymore, he competed in nine swimming races, earning four individual medals. Sclater says shooting helps his swimming abilities through development of visualization skills.
Hit in 2011 with an IED blast, Shockey suffers from traumatic brain injury and has issues with vision, which affect how he focuses on the target. Last year, he won a gold medal in pistol, then backed it up this year by winning the bronze.
Her first time attending the Warrior Games, Piper is a quick learner. This year her family and team cheered her on to a bronze medal in pistol. Besides her supporters, she relies heavily on visualization and other mental techniques to deliver a solid performance. While Piper wouldn’t qualify as a Paralympic athlete, she is considering pursuing pistol as an Olympic event.
For not even knowing what an air rifle was before Marine Corps trials last year, Aquino has proven himself exceptional. After only about seven months of training, in the 2013 Warrior Games he was tied for the gold medal in air rifle after both qualification and finals. He shot a near-perfect 10.7 to clinch the gold medal.
Injured in Iraq in 2004, Aquino is looking forward to reaching the 20-year mark in his service career next June.
When Stalder first picked up a rifle, he could not stop shaking as he pointed at the target (hence the nickname Shaky Jake). But as his technique came along, amazingly the shakiness began decreasing with every shot. This year, Stalder won the gold medal in prone rifle and the silver in standing rifle.
In nearly 27 years of shooting and coaching, Maj. Schwent has seen countless times the enormous therapeutic value of shooting. “Sometimes it’s not even about aiming, it’s just being able to pull the trigger,” he says.
A former medalist and excellent shooter, Nick is a testament to the healing power of competitive shooting. “Sometimes you just get lonely,” he says. But being on this team has given him back the sense of family and support he used to have while on active duty.
Coach Paul says his true passion is coaching Marines. "I don't know about other services, but I know about Marines," he explains. "100 percent means 100 percent." To him, a coach is simply a tool to help change lives.
Many of my best friends at the Olympic Training Center complex in Colorado Springs are Paralympic athletes. I’m also close to many former and current warriors in various military branches. However, my experience at the 2014 Warrior Games touched me more deeply than I ever expected.
For many wounded military members, the wounds penetrate much deeper than what is outwardly visible. Take Marines, for example: Every day of training, they are drilled with being the best of the best. When they become ill, injured or wounded, the challenges change. When a Marine loses physical health, a part of his former identity is also lost.
While it’s easy to see the competitive aspect of the Warrior Games, the value actually runs much deeper—especially in the shooting events. Maj. John Schwent, head coach of the Marine shooting team at the Warrior Games, said that when his Marines are handed an air rifle, they see it as a puny version of the M-16s they used to shoot. But once they begin shooting air rifles, they realize how difficult it is. Suddenly they’ve discovered another way to push their limits.
For Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Aquino, who medaled four times this year, the positive effect shooting has on his daily life is purely mental. Excelling at air rifle shooting requires extreme focus and thought control. When he was forced to go off painkillers to concentrate, his intensity increased; pain only became a distraction.
“Every time I’m behind those sights, my head clears and all I’m focusing on is that pellet,” Aquino explained.
Competitive shooting acts as therapy not only in the physical sense, but also in restoring purpose to the lives of these individuals.In past Warrior Games, MSgt. Dionisios Nicholas has medaled multiple times in shooting and swimming. This year, an issue with his wrists has forced him to take a break from participating. Now he coaches instead.
While swimming helps him heal physically, shooting is completely different due to the concentration involved. “When I’m shooting, there is no pain,” Nicholas said. “I’m in my own world. There’s no way to describe it.”
Competitive shooting acts as therapy not only in the physical sense, but also in restoring purpose to the lives of these individuals. For many of these warriors, a common effect of medication is a loss of a sense of normalcy. But when a shooter overcomes the effects of medication to compete at a higher level, he becomes himself again.
“It’s therapy,” Davis said. “It’s absolutely therapy, because you feel a purpose again.”
At the 2014 games in early October, the Marines dominated the medal count, more than doubling the shooting medals of any other branch. While proud of that accomplishment, team coaches look beyond the glistening medals and instead focus on the renewed glow in their athletes’ eyes.
“At the end of the day, this program exists because we are truly trying to save lives,” Schwent said.