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Disabled vets compete in games

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As disabled veterans tested their limits during the National Disabled Veterans Wheelchair Games, which wrapped up here yesterday, nearly 400 military volunteers provided the behind-the-scenes support that officials said made the games a success.

Nebraska Army and Air National Guardsmen, as well as active-duty airmen from nearby Offutt Air Force Base helped with everything from transporting athletes to venues to serving as road guards as they crossed busy intersections to setting up sporting events, Mike Wittrock, volunteer coordinator said.

The military volunteers lined softball fields, set up basketball courts, opened doors, and handed towels and water to parched participants. They also helped veterans through the buffet line at the Qwest Center, which served as the hub for five days of activities.

“At every single event, we had at least one military member doing volunteer duty, and you could tell they were tickled to death to do it,” Wittrock said. “The military has really stepped up to the plate, just like the rest of the community, to ensure the games proceed smoothly and that the athletes are taken care of. We couldn’t have put on these games without them.”

Volunteerism hit record numbers for this year’s games, the 28th since they began in 1981, Wittrock said. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America — cosponsors of the event — put out a call for 3,000 volunteers, 4,200 stepped forward, he said.

Some of the military support took center stage. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Phil Stacey, better known as an “American Idol” finalist during season six, opened and closed the games with his booming rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Stacey, assigned to Navy Community Outreach in Millington, Tenn., also served as an announcer at several of the events, including yesterday’s slalom “super G” obstacle course that drew wildly screaming fans cheering on the participants.

“I’m honored to be here and to be able to meet these amazing athletes,” Stacey said. “Seeing what they’re able to do makes everything about this amazing.”

Meanwhile, Airmen 1st Class Silvia Lisseth and Crystal Holk, both from Offutt Air Force Base, served as volunteers at a platform in the Qwest Center where winners received their medals.

Lisseth said she was blown away by the veterans’ enthusiasm for the games. “It’s amazing to see how much they put into this and how much heart they have in it,” she said. Holk said she felt honored to announce each winner’s awards before the medal presentations. “It’s really inspiring to see how motivated they are to come and win these, and then to see the big smiles when they wear those medals,” she said.

For Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Guretsky, who returned home to Omaha in July after a 15-month deployment with the Nebraska Guard’s 126th Chemical Battalion, volunteering at the wheelchair games offered a chance to give back to veterans who have made big sacrifices.

“All of these athletes are veterans, so it’s sort of like we are helping our own,” said Guretsky, who with his fellow soldiers moved water and ice, helped tear down tents and pitched in any way he could. “The veterans appreciate it when they see us in uniform, knowing that we support them.

“And it’s gratifying for us, too, seeing the competitors smiling and so happy to be out there,” he said. “You see them get outside and do things they never thought they could do.”

Airmen 1st Class Tim and Stephanie Patenaude, a husband-and-wife team from Offutt Air Force Base, volunteered throughout the games, wrapping up the final day manning the entrance to the dining hall.

Stephanie, a munitions accountability crewmember, said she felt compelled to volunteer for the games because she recognizes all servicemembers are just one accident or incident away from becoming disabled veterans themselves. “I could be one of these people, and I would want to know that someone was there to support me,” she said.

“These guys deserve this,” her husband said. “They’re all veterans. They have done more than their part for the country, and they deserve whatever we can do for them.”

Air Force Maj. Joyce Tow, a nurse with the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 155th Air Refueling Wing, helped veterans through the food service line as the wheelchair games wrapped up yesterday. But like her fellow military volunteers, she’d bounced from one job to another throughout the games. She helped the athletes collect their luggage and load on the bus as they arrived at the airport, helped set up the archery competition at a nearby high school, and planned to help the athletes through the airport check-in process today.

Tow called volunteering at the games a welcome change from her more immediate military duties of patient care. “As a nurse, I see them in the hospital, and I don’t know what happens to them afterward,” she said. “Here, I’m getting to see them not just function, but function at a very high level. That’s pretty gratifying.”

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Steve Goodner, a fellow 155th Air Refueling Wing Guardsman, said wearing the uniform gave him a special connection to the veterans. “You can see it in their eyes. They associate with you and relate with you,” he said. “They focus on you because you are wearing the uniform, and it’s clear that they are very grateful for what we are doing.”

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