This is the first story in a four-part series featuring two athletes who have overcome traumatic brain injury (TBI) or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to compete at the 2015 Warrior Games.
When military athletes converge in Quantico, Virginia, for the 2015 Warrior Games (June 19-28), they’ll compete for much more than the chance to win a medal. Although service members will try to win in basketball, cycling, archery, track and field, shooting, swimming and volleyball, they’re really fighting to get their lives back after almost losing them on the battlefield.
Air Force Master Sgt. Daniel Waugh and Marine Sgt. Clayton McDaniel will compete against each other in archery (June 22) and shooting events (June 26). One thing that makes these games unique for them, and for a large majority of the other competing athletes, is that before their military service, they hadn’t competed in the sports they have now mastered. When picking a sport to compete in at the Warrior Games, some choose an event because of their background and skills they learned in military training, while others pick a new focus because they are physically limited from excelling in a sport they used to compete in.
Archery as a learning tool
McDaniel developed PTSD after he watched a buddy get hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) blast. When his fellow Marine got hit by the IED, McDaniel was injured as well — the initial blast wave caused internal damage to McDaniel’s hips — but he says the psychological damage has been his toughest hurdle.
McDaniel uses the concentration it takes to succeed in shooting a bow and arrow as a means to understand what he needs to do to live outside of competition.
“Archery is a great way for me to focus on one shot at a time,” McDaniel shared. “I focus on my shot process. It allows me to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. I can use this whenever I have an anxiety attack or panic attack.”
He has been refining his craft since 2012. This will be McDaniel’s second Warrior Games. He often trains by himself, with frequent emails and phone calls to his coach John Fuller. Being isolated from comrades drives him to train harder, he says, so that he can support the team by doing well for his service branch.
“The important thing for me is to be able to represent the Marine Corps again,” McDaniel said. “Being [around other Marines] is more rewarding than receiving any medal.”
Airmen can shoot too
Waugh received a concussion in 2006 in Baghdad, when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. A second blast during the ensuing firefight knocked him unconscious, and he came to with a ruptured ear drum. He wasn’t diagnosed with TBI until 2008. He also has struggled with PTSD since 2007. His TBI injuries make some everyday tasks more difficult than they were in the past, he explained.
“I have some cognitive deficits,” he said. “I have some short-term memory issues and focus issues that I struggle with daily.”
Like McDaniel, Waugh values the opportunity to do something for his service again. Waugh wants to change the perception that his service branch consists of those who are at home in the air but aren’t known for being good shots on the ground. He said he wanted to prove something to himself and others who look at the Air Force in a certain light. If he can demonstrate that an airman can also be a great marksman, he says he will consider his time at the Warrior Games a success.
Waugh honed his skills despite discomfort. Shooting is physically taxing because the athlete must hold a heavy rifle still for long periods. Competitions can last up to an hour at a time, so a rifle is held to the shoulder for long stretches of time. “It has been a struggle,” Waugh said. “But it is also why I love the sport so much.”
Waugh says the positives the sport brings him mentally far outweigh the physical demands.
“You feel like you have done something,” he said. “Mentally, you are all pumped up after shooting. It is almost a euphoric state.”