Wounded Warriors find solace in athletics

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Moises Vasquez
  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs

Two U.S. Air Force veterans who concluded their active-duty careers at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are competing in the upcoming Department of Defense-wide Warrior Games Challenge at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California, June 1 to 15.

Gary Keller, a wounded warrior athlete and retired senior master sergeant, and James Phelps, a prior U.S. Air Force technical sergeant who has four Afghanistan deployments, competed in trials at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada, to earn the opportunity to represent team Air Force courtesy of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. Before that, both experienced internal struggles as they were discontent with their respective fates.

“When my stroke happened, I knew it was an uphill battle to stay in [the Air Force],” Keller said.  “I wasn’t about to stop fighting, but the day came when the neuropsychologist looked me in the eyes and told me she was putting in medical board paperwork and recommending separation. At that moment, I felt like my world stopped. Even though I knew it was coming all along, this wasn’t how I wanted to go out.”

Keller was medically separated in July 2022. He said he felt alone, as he had no job and wasn’t wearing the uniform. He was stuck in the mundane routine of going back and forth to rehab, then home, and completely lost his sense of purpose.

“In February 2023, I attended my first live event – the trials in Las Vegas,” he said. “Not the best thing to do as your first event, but I wanted to jump in the water with both feet. I signed up for swimming, air rifle, archery, and cycling. By the time the two weeks ended, I realized the AFW2 Games were so important.”

Keller recognized the support network the Wounded Warrior Program provided him was very important; the games gave him new friends, family, and purpose. Although his time in the uniform is over, he wears the AFW2 uniform alongside his brothers and sisters, taking pride in awakening the ability to do things he never thought were possible.

“My life has changed for the better,” he said. “I now understand I can still do things, but it may be just different or slower. I have learned I can still do that and so much more,” said Keller. “The AFW2 is a community, and it’s about me and the rest of us – my fellow warriors. Everyone is encouraged to work hard and understand we will not fail. We are family and have each other’s back.”

It can be easy for physically disabled veterans to bond over obstacles they have faced, but it is not as simple for those with invisible wounds. Phelps has felt that way at one point in his life.

“September 13, 2012, one day after the attack on Benghazi, the Taliban breached our perimeter in Afghanistan, leading to us suffering the greatest loss of military assets since Vietnam. It was after this deployment I could no longer hide the effects deployments had on me,” said Phelps. “I noticed things within me starting to change; nothing seemed to evoke emotion; I lost empathy for almost anyone stateside because of what people were still enduring during the war. This just became who I was for the next few years - just maintaining, one day at a time, which was manageable until my best friend, my battle buddy, took his own life. That’s when I hit the bottom.”

Phelps said he could not stay put for long and needed to be constantly preoccupied with anything to avoid reflecting on his past deployments. It reached a point where he was almost catatonic at the thought of feeling any emotion, having nightmares whenever he closed his eyes, and living in constant panic.

“My greatest fear was losing my career to a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis,” he said. “So, after surviving my first Deployment Availability Working Group review stating I was fit for duty, I stopped all mental health care to deter further evaluation,” said Phelps. “That eventually led to two separate intensive inpatient hospital stays and eventually, just short of 20 active-duty years, placement on temporary disabled retired list and recommendation for medical retirement. My wife of 14 years and counting, tricked me into our first AFW2 event. She told me I needed to attend, as it was for her to receive valuable resources as a caretaker, and I was going to enjoy a retreat focusing on my wellness and resiliency.” 

Phelps said he met some great people who assisted him in letting go of having not reached 20 years of military service, even learning self-compassion, allowing himself to dissolve what resentment he had. As a result, an opportunity for his family to heal arose.

“While at our first AFW2 event at Peterson [Space Force Base], my wife went into preterm labor, and our family got stuck in the Lower 48 for over four months, and we had to miss the following two events,” said Phelps. “The AFW2 staff connected our family with the Fisher House Foundation, which resulted in us having a place to call home for those four months of medical treatment.”

Phelps said when he attended the Warrior Games in 2022, it inspired him to look deeper into himself to understand that people like him, wounded warriors, can return from their respective wounds. Once he was cleared to travel back to Alaska, his wife enrolled him in a care event again, but for adaptive sports.

“Originally, I had trepidations and felt unworthy, as I had not endured a loss of limb. But I was met with unwavering support and recognition for the invisible wounds I live with. The gratitude I have for AFW2, and their mission is insurmountable,” said Phelps. “I trained and trained, harder than I ever had from the time I left the Washington, D.C. care event until the Warrior Games trials a few months later in Las Vegas.”

Phelps said when he heard his name called after the trials, it validated his dedication to his sport. He finally earned another opportunity to represent the Air Force in another way, along with 40 other wounded warriors in the Warrior Games Challenge. 

“I still can’t believe I was chosen, but I remember it vividly," said Phelps. “‘All the way from Alaska, the man with the orange bandana, James Phelps,’ as I was known, I had no idea what they were looking for or what role I would play. It was all new to most of us.” 

Phelps said recurve archery, Olympic pistol, wheelchair basketball, rugby and powerlifting were his choice of sports to participate in. Although it is challenging to train for four of the five sports he qualified for, he still trains for all of them. He does all this while balancing his personal life – caring for his family and mentally preparing for the challenges ahead.

“I am truly honored to be part of this team. It has motivated me through days I have mentally been debilitated, while still working through PTSD. It has propelled me into uncharted territory in sports I never thought I would play. It holds me accountable for my actions as my representation for Team Air Force is not only on an individual basis, but also incorporates a team aspect through competing as part of two different team sports,” said Phelps. “This whole experience has brought a hope that I can return to duty to finish my enlistment and has reinvigorated my pride in my military service.”

Phelps said he had regained a sense of self-worth, a belief he lost along the way. The games and the program have allowed him to gain lost confidence and realize the latent potential he thought was lost.

“The Warrior Games, for some of us, are our last shots at competing at this level and being part of a team. It gives us a glimpse into who we were before our injuries,” said Phelps. “It allows me to connect with like-minded people with similar backgrounds. We don’t judge each other for having a bad day. It is a close family. We are there for each other on and off the field of competition.”