Like so many Americans, my eyes have been glued to the television this week as Team USA has made a run for Gold-medal dominance in the 2012 London Olympics. But as a Veteran and an amputee, I’m also looking forward to watching my fellow Veterans compete in the London Paralympic Games, set for August 29–September 9.
This year, 17 Veterans and three active duty personnel will represent the United States by competing in the London Paralympic Games. By comparison, at the last Paralympics in the 2010 Winter Games, we had just five Veterans competing in Vancouver.
As Director for VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events, I believe the increase in Veterans on the U.S. Team is directly related to our partnership with the U.S. Paralympics and our integrated adaptive sports program. The program provides grants for community organizations to host adaptive sporting events for Veterans in their communities as well as allowance payments for Veterans who meet a military standard in their specific sport.
The goals, however, are broader than competing in the Paralympics. A few years ago, Disabled Sports USA teamed up with the Department of Labor to study the correlation between participation in sports and employment among Americans with disabilities. The study sample of 1,108 Americans with disabilities included 203 Veterans who suffered traumatic injuries while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The results showed that 90% of disabled Veterans surveyed felt their quality of life had significantly improved through physical activity.
Nearly six in ten disabled Veterans surveyed reported that being physically active led to an increase in workplace responsibilities. The study found those who were physically active also enjoyed socializing more, had a strong support network, and were more likely to say they looked forward to the rest of their lives than those who were not physically active. The full study is here.
So what does this mean to me? It shows me that participation in adaptive sports is about more than gaining confidence, self-esteem or making it to elite level competition. And it encourages me to delve deeper into how adaptive sports and recreation improves Veterans’ lives; not just their physical health, but their overall well-being and quality of life.
That is why I recently hired Mrs. Susan Pejoro, R.N., a spinal cord injury nurse, with more than 18 years of clinical experience as the new Deputy Director for the Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events. Her initial focus will be to blend clinical care initiatives throughout VA and progressive rehabilitation concepts to our current adaptive sporting events. The goal is to ensure that all VA medical providers, from the smallest VA clinic to the largest VA medical center, have the resources and ability to clinically assess and refer Veterans to appropriate adaptive sporting events. And to measure the results of adaptive sports participation through areas such as weight management, smoking cessation, hypertension, blood pressure, or reduced dependency on medication.
Together, we will focus our efforts on providing VA’s interdisciplinary patient aligned care teams with information on the merits of rehabilitative sporting activities. We will develop an adaptive sports electronic referral process to expedite event applications, medical clearance, and encourage post event incorporation of adaptive sporting activities for a lifetime of health.
We will be reaching out to our interdisciplinary peers to review current research on the state of clinical benefits of adaptive sorts. We will also retrospectively look at the data we have collected over the last 25 years with our adaptive sports clinics. Our goals are to harness the therapeutic value of adaptive sports by measuring clinical outcomes, supporting VA clinical teams and local adaptive sport programs, and encouraging Veterans to stay active in their communities.
Our office motto, “Mission Redefined,” resonates with those who have served and suffered debilitating injuries. They are learning to redefine their lives and their future potential. But it also resonates within VA as we redefine our approach to health care from treating symptoms to promoting healthy living and avoiding illness altogether.
For a list of Veterans on the U.S. Paralympic Team or for information on our integrated adaptive sports program, check out our website.
Christopher J. Nowak is a Marine Corps Veteran and the Director of the Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events.