This week will kick off the 13th anniversary of the Department of Defense’s annual Warrior Games Challenge in San Diego.
The games, which will go from Friday through June 12, will highlight the exceptional physical skills and mental toughness of wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran service members. About 200 men and women representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and U.S. Special Operations Command will compete in a variety of adaptive sports. The games will be hosted by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Naval Air Station North Island.
For veterans and Warrior Games participants Annie Knox and Chris Ferrell, the games present an opportunity to channel their warrior spirit despite their injuries that have kept them out of combat, as well as to prove to others and themselves that they can still accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
Knox has been in the Army for more than 12 years, serving as a signals intelligence analyst. She has also spent 17 years as a union rugby player. She has begun a transition from active duty to the veteran community after sustaining an injury playing rugby. Knox has had a series of seven knee surgeries, with more to potentially come, but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her passion.
“I was a 17-year union rugby player. I played on the field. I played since my freshman year of high school and then as an adult, but with my injury, I wasn't able to return to the field," Knox said. "So this was really an awesome opportunity as I learned about wheelchair rugby, specifically that I was actually able to be competitive and tap into my sport mind and be able to apply it in a different way but still feel like a part of a team and still be active. Those were the big key factors that got me hooked.”
Adaptive sports are a part of the larger Department of Defense Warrior Care program. Those sports provide reconditioning activities and competitive athletic opportunities to all wounded, ill and injured service members to improve their physical and mental wellness throughout their recovery and transition. Modified equipment and additional classification systems allow each athlete to compete, regardless of their injury or illness.
“The Warrior Games are really important for wounded warriors to feel a part of a team. We are raised on squads and raised on teams," Knox said. "The whole Army is a team, the whole [Department of Defense] is a team, when we go out and we operate abroad and at home and in a joint environment, and with my deployment experience and stuff like that. ... It's not operating abroad but we are operating as a team on the court, and I think it just gives value and purpose to wounded warriors who may find themselves feeling a little down after their injuries."
A different path to the Warrior Games
Ferrell, a retired tech sergeant in the Air Force, worked in explosive ordnance disposal from 2003 until being medically retired in 2017 due to injuries sustained in combat. His military service included five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Ferrell, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, differed from Knox in that he initially wasn’t keen on being a part of the program or the games, but was forced into it by his wife and Chief Master Sergeant Jeremiah Grisham. After attending an event and learning about injuries, illnesses and eligibility for the program and games, he came to have a deeper understanding as to what this program can offer and appreciation for those who were in it.
“During that time of recovery, it was all super fresh to me. In my head, if you weren't with me during my missions and during the traumatic events that had happened, then we didn't need to talk or anything like that," Ferrell said. "We didn't and it was super short-sighted of me and very shallow thinking because I just felt like if you weren't in direct combat, and not only direct combat, but combat with me. Plenty of other guys I was around were in direct combat, but to me, it wasn't the same because I felt like my stuff was my stuff, and I was just so far from being right. So I had to learn that trauma was trauma regardless of how it happened to you”
Knox will participate in wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, track wheelchair racing, and field events such as seated shot put, seated discus, and she hopes to swim as well. Ferrell will captain the Air Force team for the second time. He'll take part in sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, powerlifting, seated shot put, track wheelchair racing and indoor rowing.
Knox and Ferrell have encountered obstacles in adjusting to their new way of play.
“I think mentally, it is a little bit of a different game, like different technicalities,” Knox said. “I think relearning the game was a challenge, but then seeing how my previous experience kind of plugged into both rugby and wheelchair basketball with having a defensive mind. The field scope and the field IQ does apply on the court, so I thought that was really great.”
Ferrell had to change his habits to excel in his new adaptive sport.
"I’ve always weight trained, and strength training and stuff for being in shape and for the military and for my job and stuff like that," Ferrell said. "But I've never done this type of powerlifting because it's para bench, which was fully new to me. I've never done bench where my legs were straight up and strapped down. I always did suicide grip on my benchpress, so in January I had to learn how to wrap my thumbs [around the bar] and I almost dropped 135 pounds on my chest because I didn't know how to hold on correctly. So it's something that I've really dove into and I'm really excited about that.”
Sports provide tool for healing
The games have allowed wounded and ill warriors to tap back into their passions, stay active and stay competitive, but the games are also these veterans' form of rehabilitation, both mentally and physically. The role the games play for these athletes is substantial.
“[The Warrior Games' role in my recovery] was absolutely crucial because when you separate yourself from the type of individuals that are in the program, you end up in your own bubble," Ferrell said. "And when you do that, you start to forget about everybody else's problems that they're going through and all of their trials. So getting back into it you start to realize that the problems that you've had, the battles that you're fighting, you're not the only one doing it.
“Where I’m at in my recovery mentally, I'm much, much more stable and secure in myself than I was six years ago, seven years ago. Back then I was extremely volatile. And it's only been the last couple of years, probably two, three years that I've really gotten to a point where I feel solid and with that I think it helps me talk to people, relate to them. You can't always relate to everybody because all your stories are different. And with your stories being different, you got to find common ground care and recovery."
As Knox continues her healing process with her knee, she still feels that sports plays a role in her mental recovery.
“I'm not healed. And there's still more to do on the recovery aspect, but the way that the sports kind of plugs in is actually being more active in training and in other ways to keep me active. I think that really helps me physically but also mentally, knowing I'm playing a sport and training for something sport specific, even though it's not rugby or not powerlifting, it's a different way that I still feel like I achieve the same outcome, physically and mentally. And having that healthy coping mechanism, and you're just being healthy. I think it's helped me get out of a slump of saying that I can't do things and gotten me into that saying, 'No, I'm here for progress and purpose. I have things to do.' And actually enjoy it.”
The community of warriors that participates in these games is tight-knit. These veterans lean on each other and rely on each other mentally, physically and competitively. Ferrell, who has been a participant since 2016 and was a co-captain of the Air Force team that year, considers himself an “OG” in the program and prides himself on being a resource for newcomers.
“We have a lot of new personnel that are in and just with what I've gone through and things that I’ve endured with recovery and everything like that, I'm able to help redirect and refocus [on] men and women that are still trying to find their way,” Ferrell said.
The community has also been a solid foundation and support system for Knox, who is still dealing with some complications from injury and her transition to the veteran community.
“The program has shown me more ways that you can do things and focus on the adaptation rather than the 'can't'. I was really hyper focused on, 'I can't run, I can't walk,' and that my knee gives out and so, it really kind of opened my eyes to the camaraderie of other veterans or others who have similar complications or totally unrelated complications. And just being around them really helped me," she said. "I think they helped to not only accept where I'm at but find other ways to do things that are fulfilling, to connect to a community and play sports or work out, even share activities."