COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (November 11, 2016) – Of the 267 athletes representing Team USA at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 30 were military veterans. Six of those veterans were members of the U.S. Sitting Volleyball Teams.
USA Volleyball currently has seven athlete with military experience on its sitting national teams, with additional veterans in the sitting program’s A2 training pipeline.
On Veteran’s Day this year, take a moment to learn more about six of USA Volleyball’s military veterans, three of whom were injured while deployed overseas.
Branch of the Military: Navy
Years of Service: July 2003-July 2012
John Kremer (Buford, Georgia) grew up in a military family – his father and uncles both served in the Navy – and obtained his “dream job,” working as an explosive ordnance device technician for the Navy. On Sept. 17, 2010, during his fourth deployment, Kremer stepped on a land mine while clearing a hill in Afghanistan, subsequently having both his legs amputated below the knee.
“I had a little kid’s dream job (with the Navy),” Kremer said. “I got to roll in the mud, learn how to scuba dive, jump out of planes; we really did a little bit of everything.”
Within a year of his accident, Kremer was walking and running on prosthetic legs and even skydiving. He reached his personal goal to out-walk his daughter, who was born 12 days before his accident.
And while representing the United States as a member of the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volleyball Team requires a vastly different skill set than defusing a live explosive, the opportunity to represent his country still instills pride.
“Being able to compete for the USA on an international level lets me put on the red, white and blue again,” Kremer said. “I wear it on my chest now instead of my shoulder, but it’s the same flag. It’s awesome to compete for our country. I can’t complain about that at all.”
Branch of the Military: Army
Years of Service: 1994-2003
Joining the Army after high school was a natural decision for Kari Miller (Washington D.C.). She followed in the footsteps of her aunt, who also served in the Army. Working as a transportation management coordinator, Miller oversaw the movement of both soldiers and supplies by plane, barge or even railway.
The job required travel to many countries including Hungary, Korea and Bosnia, where she was deployed for a time.
However, Miller’s military career drastically changed when she was home visiting friends and family in 1999 and a drunk driver struck the car in which she was riding. To save her life, rescue workers had to amputate Miller’s legs, one above and one below the knee.
Following her accident, Miller stayed active, picking up wheelchair basketball before joining the U.S. Women’s Sitting Team in 2006. Miller has also continued partnerships with the military, working for the Paralympic Military Program – a partnership between the United States Olympic Committee and the U.S. Department of Defense – and the Air Force’s Wounded, Ill and Injured Program.
“In the military, you’re taught to be part of a team and work together and we all have this cause where we’re working to try and help save the world,” Miller said. “Once you’re injured, there’s a part of you that feels isolated from that team and your mission. You can’t do the thing you’ve been trained for and focused on for so long.
“Paralympic sport brings that back to you.”
Branch of the Military: Army
Years of Service: 2007-present
Born on a military base in Germany, Stephen Bracken (Brighton, Colorado) is currently active duty through the World Class Athletes Program, a specialized military program that allows soldiers to remain active duty through participating in elite-level sports competition.
Bracken joined the Army in 2007, working as an aviation mechanic on Apache helicopters. He was deployed in 2008 and severely damaged multiple ligaments and tendons in his left leg and knee, along with dislocating his knee, fracturing the fibular head and severing his peroneal nerve during a mixed martial arts training exercise.
“There was instant loss of feeling, so it wasn’t as bad as you might think,” Bracken said. “I have feeling about halfway down my shin, but below that it’s a different kind of feeling. It’s sort of like the listless feeling you get following the pins-and-needles sensation when you’re arm or leg fall asleep.”
Bracken hopes to have the injured appendage amputated later this year; after that his future with the Army is unclear, but he said the pride he feels playing for the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team will remain.
“Doing WCAP is a different sort of service to your country, but volleyball is always number one on my mind,” he said.
Branch of the Military: Army National Guard
Years of Service: 1994-2006
For Dan Regan (St. Louis, Missouri), joining the Army National Guard was a bit of a no-brainer.
“I always felt (public service) is something everyone should do, whether it’s a couple of years or a career,” he said. “It can be military, or the Peace Corps, but I felt it was something I should do.”
Regan was injured in 2005 during a non-military boating accident with friends. After leaving the Army National Guard in November 2006, he attended his first training camp with the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team in January 2007, and has been with the team since.
“With both experiences, you represent your country and that’s a big thing,” Regan said. “Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military and even fewer get to represent the U.S. at the Olympics or Paralympics. It’s a sense of pride, but there’s also a sense of accomplishment.”
Branch of the Military: Army
Years of Service: 2003-2006
James Stuck (New Kensington, Pennsylvania) joined the Army during his first semester of college, realizing it could provide the opportunities he was seeking after growing up in a former steel mill town near Pittsburgh.
Stuck was in the second major wave of soldiers deployed to Iraq, leaving in October 2005. Two months later, the Humvee that Stuck was driving hit a roadside bomb. Stuck lost his right leg below the knee and another soldier lost his arm in the aftermath, but none of the four soldiers in the Humvee were killed.
Now, nearly 10 years after first joining the U.S. Men’s Sitting Team, Stuck said the pride of serving for his country has translated to the volleyball court.
“They’re completely different platforms, but it’s a complete honor to participate in both the military and the Paralympics,” he said. “Every time I put on a jersey it’s a privilege. It’s nothing something I take lightly.”
Branch of Service: Marines
Years of Service: 2005-2015
Smith (Mesquite, Texas) served 10 years in the Marine Corps, obtaining the role of staff sergeant. With multiple family members that served in the Army, joining the military was a natural choice. During his 10 years of service, Smith did one deployment to Iraq in 2008. His right leg was amputated below the knee in 2013 after a non-military shotgun accident severed his Achilles tendon, multiple arteries, tendons and ligaments.
During the 2014 Marine Corps Trials, current U.S. Men’s Sitting Team Head Coach Greg Walker invited Smith to come to a team training camp; Smith made his first international roster earlier this year when he traveled to the World ParaVolley Intercontinental Cup with the team.
“In the military you sometimes become very focused on yourself and your career,” Smith said. “With the sitting team it’s really about focusing on helping the team improve. Just because you’re injured in the service doesn’t mean it’s the end of what you can do.
“You’re still representing your country (playing a Paralympic sport), it’s just a different sort of service and representation.”