Help for Our Wounded
After he throws the last discus of the three he has, Sean Hook walks in the grass field of Penn State’s outdoor track facility to retrieve them.
His wife, Melanie, watches him during this mid-September practice session, and when she’s asked what athletic endeavors such as this have meant to her husband, she gives a big smile. “It’s given him a focus, a sense of self,” she says. “He’d be sitting at home unable to do work or anything ... feel useless as a man I guess.”
Walking with Sean as he gathers each discus is his coach, Teri Jordan, the disability-recreation program coordinator and Ability Athletics coach at Penn State. She is part of Penn State’s efforts to help this country’s wounded warriors such as Hook who have returned home during the past several years from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The university has already been designated a military-friendly school for three consecutive years because of the programs and services it offers through its World Campus. Those programs are designed specifically to help active-duty military-service members and veterans pursue an education. But beyond educating, the school is helping service members who have been wounded in combat transition to active and healthy lives — even if those wounds remain with them forever.
Besides the work Jordan does, the university also developed and hosts the Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors program, which is funded by the US Department of Defense. The program, which started in 2009 and is held four times a year, helps provide Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) professionals from each service with the knowledge and tools to take back to their facilities and make them even more helpful for the wounded men and women. The Penn State baseball team also has an annual Wounded Warrior Game that raises money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project. And this season, the wrestling team, for the first time, will hold a Wounded Warriors night on December 15 when they take on Lock Haven.
Looking at Sean Hook, one doesn’t see a wounded warrior. At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, he looks every bit the former high school football player and current discus and shot- put thrower he is.
Three years ago, Hook was in Iraq as an Army sergeant with the Bravo Company 2, 112th Infantry Regiment. Like many, he wanted to serve his country following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He and his platoon were patrolling the city of Abu Ghraib when they were hit by a IED (Improvised Explosive Device).
Hook had been eight meters away when it exploded. He had his left shoulder torn up, which has left him with about 60 percent mobility in his arm. It wasn’t until he returned home that he realized his injuries weren’t just physical.
At Fort Dix in New Jersey, doctors found that Hook had sustained a traumatic brain injury. It has caused him to have problems with his memory and focusing.
“That’s one of the hardest things I found — I don’t have focus,” he says. “It’s tough to go day to day. Sometimes I can’t even hold a conversation because my focus is so bad.”
He also says he had a problem going into crowded places such as Walmart and he’d constantly move his head around to survey his surroundings — something he had been trained to do in Iraq.
While the 35-year-old Hook could have returned to a job he had at a chemical plant before he was deployed, he decided not to because he didn’t want to risk injuries to himself and others. After he had returned home, much of his time was spent riding ATVs with a friend of his or drinking some beer and telling war stories with military buddies of his who also were home.
“You put all those thoughts back in your head,” he says. “You get weary of it. It happened and you’re never going to forget about it but you can’t dwell on it. ... What was more important to me was getting my life back together.”
About a year ago, Hook met Jordan. She asked him if he had ever thrown the shot put. He said No but would give it a try. Ever since, he visits Penn State a few days a week to train with Jordan. In the spring, he participated in the Warrior Games, competing in shot put and discus, and plans to participate again next year.
But more important than the distances — the feet and inches — he throws the shot put and discus are the steps he has taken in his life since he began training.
“It’s brought goal-oriented things back into my life,” Hook says of the practices. “It’s frustrating as can be, but it brings that focus back.”
Jordan says having goals is what helps many battle-tested military personnel make the transition into their post-military- service lives.
“Some of them have lost sight that they can do the things they used to do, it just might be in a different way,” she says.
Photos of many of the people she’s helped train — both military and nonmilitary — cover the walls of Jordan’s small office in the Bryce Jordan Center. Each day when she walks through her door, she sees their faces.
“I’m inspired every day,” she says. “I surround myself with inspiration.”
Probably the most well-known person Jordan has trained is Kortney Clemons, who lost his right leg while serving as a combat medic in Iraq in 2005. He graduated from Penn State in 2008, and during his track- and-field training here he became the first Iraq-war veteran to qualify for the US Paralympic team and he won the 100-meter run at the US Paralympic Track & Field Championships in 2006 and 2008.
In October, Penn State Ability Athletics received a $13,000 grant from the US Olympic Committee and Veterans Affairs. It was one of 97 organizations across the country to receive a grant. The funding is “helping to meet the need for Paralympic and adaptive sport programming for disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces in communities across the country.”
Besides training individuals in track and field events (Jordan had been Penn State’s track and field coach for 15 years from 1984 to 1999), she and the Ability Athletics program also offer a wheelchair- basketball program. Last winter, she helped organize a sitting volleyball match that featured members of the US Army Sitting Volleyball team, athletes from Penn State Ability Athletics, and Penn State’s women’s volleyball team.
Erica Denney, a redshirt sophomore on the women’s volleyball team, played in the match and says, “It was one of the coolest things I’ve done. Not only playing with them but talking with them and hearing about everything they’ve gone through. ... They continued on active duty and returned to work on military installations. During previous wars, those who had been wounded would likely have been discharged or retired.
Tammy Smith, then an instructor in Penn State’s department of recreation, park, and tourism management, saw a need developing — these military facilities and their civilian workers had to be better equipped and trained to help the wounded men and women who had returned.
She wrote a concept paper and presented it to the Department of Defense. In 2007, she put together a prototype curriculum for MWR professionals to be trained to provide opportunities for wounded service members. She invited the decision-makers from all the military branches to experience it. The next year, the Department of Defense contracted with Penn State to run the four-day Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors training course.
Four times a year (twice during the spring semester and twice during the fall semester), MWR professionals from across the country and abroad visit Penn State to take the course.
“What we do is introduce MWR professionals to the concept of inclusion,” says Smith, who is the project director. “What does it mean to be included? What does it mean to be excluded, whether purposely or not purposely? ... We break it down by various disabilities.”
The MWR professionals hear from people who have traumatic brain injuries, post- traumatic stress, spinal-cord injuries, and amputations. They learn how to adapt programs to be more inclusive and ensure their buildings meet with standards that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But it’s not all about buying new equipment or changing physical structures.
Smith notes that most people with disabilities have conditions that can’t be seen. They have “hidden” disabilities such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and the program shows what can be done to help people with those injuries.
“For example, some people with post- traumatic stress are sensitive to loud noises, so, they go to a fitness facility where people may be dropping weights all of the time,” Smith says. “That could be very disturbing for someone who has post-traumatic stress. So maybe we suggest that the person comes when there’s lower participation in the gym or the person has a pair of noise-cancellation ear phones to minimize the noise. Little things like that don’t cost much. It’s about being creative and working with a person to meet their needs.”
She adds that she constantly hears from installations that had someone take the course. They describe changes they’ve made to help their wounded warriors. One example is how the Marines have hired recreation therapists for Marine Headquarters and some of their other installations. According to the publication Government Recreation & Fitness, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina has become a leader in creating more inclusive environments.
Ruth Ann Jackson, a faculty member in the School of Hospitality Management at Penn State and principal investigator for the project, says the program needs to continue to evolve, including having an online module in the future.
“The next frontier is to investigate programming around recreation and suicide prevention,” she says. “And post-traumatic stress is now hitting daycare centers because children are suffering because of their parents. I don’t think people realize what repeat deployments have done to people and families.”
Ralph Smith, Tammy’s husband and program coordinator, knows about the wounds from war and what it can mean to have support from the home front. He served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and returned home with his left leg 1 1⁄2 inches shorter than his right leg because of injuries he suffered from being shot. He didn’t have the opportunities or receive the care today’s military veterans receive.
“There was a lot of resentment and anger toward soldiers,” says Smith, a professor emeritus in Penn State’s department of recreation, park, and tourism management. “Now, there’s a lot of positive feelings toward the military, especially after 9/11.”
He concurs that when it comes to helping wounded warriors it isn’t just about changing physical environments. “You have to start with the attitude people have toward people with disabilities,” he says. “That’s No. 1 — not the architecture but the attitude. ... Hopefully we’re changing attitudes and reinforcing positive attitudes of managers who want to include, and they’ll train their staff for inclusion.”
Much of that change in attitude comes from listening to those who sacrificed and served, as the MWR professionals have the opportunity to do during the course when wounded service personnel share their stories. They’re the ones who can explain best what help they may need.
“These people are extremely brave, and it’s an honor to work with them,” Jackson says. “They never talk about what they did. They don’t want to brag, they just want to complete their mission.”