Stephanie Morris…even if her name is not familiar, you’ve seen her around. You’ve seen her on buses, posters and billboards across the city over the past month. In the picture, she’s framed by the Chinatown Gate on Cermak and Wentworth, sitting in a wheelchair, dribbling a basketball and offering a dare directly through the camera, challenging the city to a game.
Morris was one of the 250 seriously wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans who came to Chicago to participate in the 2017 United States Department of Defense Warrior Games last week.
And she is a beast. Morris won medals in 5 of her 6 events, three of them gold.
Ironically though, Morris, like so many other wounded warriors, nearly missed out on the opportunity for redemption and glory that the games represent because she just wasn’t ready for it. The 27-year-old Army Specialist was seriously injured by indirect fire during an attack on her base in Afghanistan, losing part of her left leg. Her wounds caused her to pull back from the world.
“It took me a while to get past my injuries and get over it myself,” said Morris. “I was really in denial at first and I didn’t want to do adaptive sports, I really didn’t want to be around too many people. So when I found adaptive sports, I was like ‘No, I’ll be able to get back to doing what I used to do, so I really didn’t think much of it.’”
Adaptive Sports is a growing part of the US military’s Wounded Warrior services program used to help wounded veterans regain a sense of normalcy through competition and camaraderie. “Each service has their own Wounded Warrior program,” said Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, Director of Air Force Services. Her office oversees all services airmen receive from the day they start until they retire.
According to Cook, the military’s adaptive sports programs are far more than just fun and games.
“Primarily, it’s rehabilitation,” said Cook. “It’s that recovery from and to better learn and strengthen the new normal. That’s really what this is. In many cases, we get folk who didn’t immediately get involved in the wounded warrior program and it’s way more than just the adaptive sports. We have the other pieces that help you key into what you can do. And so it really is building a healthy mind and a healthy body within the new normal based on whatever your wound or illness or injury might be.”
Chief Jason Youngblood, the chief of the Navy team in the games, says that the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines competing in the games came into the military to serve their country and through unforeseen circumstances paid a heavy price for that service. The military’s adaptive sports programs are an attempt to repay that debt and to help rebuild that warrior.
“You have things like music and sports that are universal, they speak to everybody so what we try to do is use that to give them a stepping stone to reacclimate them back into civilization through the means of sports and also camaraderie,” said Youngblood. “So being around people again, because a lot of them have issues about being around people again, it’s also just to let them know that you’re still relevant. You’re still a person. We’re grateful for what you’ve done but understand that your life is going to go on and this is a way, a catalyst, to put you back into civilization; a little different, but still you.”
Through the Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports programs, service members learn not to endure their limitations but to accept their own personal new normal and embrace the person who they could be.
“I was hurt,” said Morris, “but I found a way to get past that, and I realized that I got injured, yes, but it’s not the end of the world for me and I have to keep pushing.”
Army Master Sergeant Jovan Bowser knows how Morris feels. The 20-year reservist won 2 medals at the Games: a gold medal for Shot Put and a silver medal for Discus. Bowser was a lifelong athlete; a semi Pro women’s football player and a basketball player who was far more comfortable playing with the men on base, having established that she could “shoot their lights out.” However, while she was no stranger to being generally banged up as an athlete, Bowser has endured more than her share of physical wear and tear. In Iraq, she survived an attack on her MRAP service vehicle where she sustained injuries including two TBIs, a significant cervical injury and she developed PTSD. She was later involved in a head-on collision back home. The accumulation of injuries took their toll on Bowser, both mentally and physically as she found herself unable to maintain her active lifestyle.
“As an athlete, when you injure yourself, it’s really hard on you. I have PTSD also. It’s a different form of depression where you’re used to performing at a certain level and suddenly you can’t go up there and do what you used to,” said Bowser. “You can’t go out and play basketball, you have to sit down and watch. I didn’t even want to go to the gym anymore.”
According to Bowser, adaptive sports made the difference between her stay-ing engaged in life and fading away. Her involvement in the programs helped her to think about herself in a different way, helped her to stop mourning for the per-son she was before her traumas and to embrace the person she is now and could be. “It was hard to accept, but they told me that it was never going to be what it was, but you’ve got to make it the best of what it is right now.”
Now, Bowser looks at herself as the “new me.”
“The ‘new me’ has to set a standard for the new me,” said Bowser, “and as long as I live up to the ‘new me’ standard, I don’t have to go back and try to compare my-self to my old self. Because once you go through some stuff, you come out stronger.”