I can almost see you right now. You’re sitting on your favorite chair or reading this on your computer with no real plans for today. You served your country, and you suffered a traumatic injury, or life-changing illness or disease because of it. Now, you’re just kind of hanging out, waiting for your next VA appointment and letting life move on without you. I’ve got good news for you. Your time has come. I know because I’ve been there.
When I was injured in Iraq in 2003, I didn’t think it was that severe of an injury. I had ruptured a couple discs, but I didn’t want to leave my fellow Marines, so I just kept pushing forward. However, over the course of the next year the pain in my legs grew so severe that I was popping morphine pills like candy and it wasn’t touching the pain. My doctors finally recommended surgery to remove the discs and fuse my spine with screws, rods and cadaver bone.
When I woke up from surgery the pain in my legs was gone, but I immediately knew something wasn’t right. The doctors were poking my legs with needles from my hip to my ankle and I couldn’t feel anything, nor could I move my legs. In what seemed like an instant, I was paralyzed. I was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2006, and I returned home to Colorado an empty shell of a man. Soon, it was only the drinking and pills that could help me hide from my depression.
U.S. Marine Veteran and adaptive sport athlete Jon Lujan. Photo by Joe Kusumoto, Getty Images.
My VA therapist encouraged me to get involved in adaptive sports, and I was amazed at the world of opportunity it opened up for me—both professionally and personally. My adaptive sport journey took off, and so did my rehabilitation. I got involved in skiing at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and I was immediately hooked. I worked hard and earned a spot on the U.S. Alpine Ski team, even traveling to Russia to represent the United States against the world. In Sochi, I received the ultimate honor of being selected the flag bearer for the opening ceremony. Even now, knowing the rehab process never ends, I am still on my adaptive sports journey. I continue training to keep my spot on the U.S. Paralympic Alpine team, hoping to once again represent my country in Korea in 2018.
Through it all, this is what I’ve learned: adaptive sports can take you from a place where you see no future to a place where you determine your own. But let me be clear – there is no single roadmap to recovery. No one can prescribe a single drug or a single treatment to make you whole again. Your best recovery will come from the methods that work best for you. The sooner you embrace that idea, the quicker you’ll recover.
Another equally important point is that your recovery requires your involvement. It won’t just happen to you. And for those of you who are ready for a challenge – ready to fully engage your rehabilitation and move forward with your life – I’ve got something for you.
VA leads the world in adaptive sports therapy programs. It offers a number of innovative sport therapy programs to help disabled Veterans rediscover their potential and redefine their lives. From their renowned instructional clinics on adaptive summer and winter sports, to their competitive programs for wheelchair Veterans who use wheelchairs for competition, to their partnership with the U.S. Paralympics and community sport programs nationwide, VA has something for everybody.
Adaptive sports and recreation can help you confront challenges and redefine your perceived limits. The path is not always easy – nor should it be – but it certainly is worth the effort. The benefits are detailed in a 2009 study by Disabled Sports USA. The study found that disabled Veterans who participate in adaptive sports have greater independence, more fulfilling relationships, greater job satisfaction and less stress than those who don’t. In other words, disabled Veterans who participate in adaptive sports tend to be healthier and happier.
Overcoming physical challenges doesn’t stop at the gym. That feeling of success and accomplishment can carry over to starting a business, landing a new job, quitting smoking, or setting a personal best on the bench press. Goals keep us moving, and when we’re moving, we focus on what we can do, not what we can’t.
When I was in the Marine Corps, the eagle, globe and anchor were the keys to my identity. I understand what it’s like to very suddenly lose that connection. That is why I’ve made it my mission to share these lessons with a new generation of my fellow warriors.
If you are a disabled Veteran, I challenge you to join me, connect with VA’s adaptive sports programs at www.va.gov/adaptivesports, and redefine your mission.
About the author: In January of 2003, Jon Lujan deployed to Kuwait and subsequently breached into Iraq as one of the first Americans to enter the Country. He suffered a compressed spinal injury during a convoy accident in Iraq in 2003 that subsequently left him with lower leg paralysis, nerve damage and muscle weakness. He was medically retired from the Marine Corps on Memorial Day 2006. Since discovering adaptive sports, Jon has excelled in alpine skiing. He is a four time National Champion, a member of the US Paralympic Alpine Ski Team, and competed in Sochi in the 2014 Paralympic games. Jon spends his summers training at the US Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. He also enjoys traveling around the country, both vacationing and trying to get other disabled Veterans interested in sports. His belief is that all of his fellow injured service members will benefit from sport, and it helps to get back into an active lifestyle.