Unity, brotherhood, and accomplishment are just some of the adjectives used to describe the purpose behind Operation Enduring Warrior. The goal of OEW is “to facilitate a setting where our nation’s wounded service members learn their injuries should not be obstacles to any of their goals”. You can catch OEW at several types of events such as road races, military runs, but most frequently at obstacle races. The veteran operated non-profit organization uses such events as a way to “honor, empower, and motivate our wounded service members through a physical, mental, and emotional rehabilitative cycle modeled for overcoming adversity and hardship through innovation, teamwork, and perseverance”. Furthermore, the challenges and obstacles are presented as a way to help build self-confidence and help heal mental scars… “those that OEW serves desire a hand up, not a hand out”.
When I was presented with the opportunity to meet with and interview some of the Adaptive Athletes of OEW, I jumped all over it! On April 11th, I met with the members of OEW at the USMC Ultimate Challenge Mud Run in Gaston, SC. I arrived a little too late for a before-hand interview, but I was able to see them march to the start line. The view of this team walking shoulders and heads high, as a unified group, repping the famous OEW tees and flags had me awe struck. Not to mention the reaction you experience when you see the Masked Athlete Team that was there to support the honored veteran.
The Masked Athlete Team wears gas masks to represent the hardships that wounded veterans live with daily. The masks also allow the members of the team to remain anonymous so that the focus is on the honoree of the event. If you are ever at an event and see the Masked Athlete Team and decide to yell one of the member’s names and waive because you know them….think twice and don’t get offended when they don’t respond (trust me I know ☺).
I had reached out to the honoree of the event a few days previous through Facebook to introduce myself (come to find out we are practically neighbors). The moment we met on the course you would have thought we had been friends for years (we gave each other a huge bear hug and exchanged enormous smiles). Daniel Smith (Sgt), retired after fifteen years with the Reserves and Army. He was involved in an IED blast on May 28th, 2006 while sitting as gunner in his vehicle. Without having done some research about him before our initial meeting in the mud, I would have second-guessed that the man in front of me was wounded. Daniel’s story is a unique one and it is a great example that wounds can be deeper than what you see on the surface.
On May 28th, 2006 Daniel recalled being in his vehicle when they crossed paths with an IED. The blast left everyone in the vehicle jolted, but everyone seemed to be walking and functioning okay with no obvious injuries to account for. The men were checked by medical at the first opportunity, but everyone seemed to be fine considering what they had just went through. Once back to his station, Daniel laid down to rest…nearly 27 hours went by.
When Daniel finally woke up, he was stunned by the amount of ooze that had drained from his ears. The medical doctor quickly treated and then discharged him saying that he would experience some loss of hearing and ringing in the ears, but should be fine overall. So he continued to perform his job duties. It wasn’t until September that Daniel was transferred back to the states to receive his first MRI since the blast.
The MRI results were astounding… clear signs of Traumatic Brain Injury, several herniated discs in his neck and back, and two broken bones in his back (T11 and T12). The injuries left permanent nerve damage in his back along with intense head aches and even seizures.
Daniel is the type of person, who when faced with disparity and adversity, can find the positive and overcome. That’s exactly what he did. On the anniversary of September 11th in 2006 after receiving his news about his injuries, he formed a group of Walking Wounded and planned a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Giving back to his fellow wounded helped put everything into perspective for Daniel. He now cherished being alive, he was still able to walk, and he knew he had a new responsibility to help others like him. Daniel’s efforts of organizing the group for this cause earned him a special coin for caring for America’s heroes. Daniel medically retired in 2008.
As mentioned previously, Daniel’s injuries consisted of Traumatic Brain Injury and severe nerve damage in his back which left him in constant pain and agony. Unfortunately, the VA couldn’t provide the medical assistance and treatments that he truly needed. However, on September 11th, 2014 Daniel’s life would change once again.
With the help of doctors from the Carrick Brain Center and the Back to Life Campaign, Daniel was given a second chance to experience relief from pain. He received a spinal cord stimulator which is a device that is implanted into the spine. A remote control is used to change the settings based on the person’s level of activity to determine the frequency of stimulation to the spine. According to Daniel the settings are, “sitting, exercise, laying down, and…..top secret mission mode” (he couldn’t remember the fourth, we thought that was the best alternative answer ☺). Neurostimulation therapy is said to relieve about 50%-70% of pain as well as increasing the ability to participate in normal family and work activities.
Daniel made sure to take advantage of his “new” life as soon as he could! His pain levels had subsided dramatically and he was back to doing activities he loved again. Before his stimulator surgery, Daniel met the team of Operation Enduring Warrior at Jumping for a Purpose (an event for wounded veterans to experience sky diving) around June of 2014. Only one month after his surgery he was invited to attend the USMC Ultimate Mud Challenge with OEW in October of 2014. Daniel had no idea the impact that participating in an obstacle race event with a team such as OEW would bring to him.
When I asked Daniel what being an honored OEW athlete meant to him he responded with, “it is the closest relationship you can get to outside of combat”. Daniel went on to mention that being a part of an organization such as OEW made him believe in his self again. The camaraderie of OEW, “makes me feel like a part of a team again and brings back the family atmosphere of brotherhood” says Daniel.
Daniel never pictured himself running or competing in obstacle racing events prior to his injuries (unless it involved running from the law ☺). Now, he couldn’t imagine not being a part of them. His most memorable obstacle event was his first Spartan Super. “I thought I’d never be able to accomplish something like that after what I went through”, says Daniel. He has however, accomplished several obstacle events including Spartan Race and the USMC Ultimate Mud Run Challenge. Daniel’s race list will continue to grow because he isn’t a quitter and he is always up for new challenges.
Daniel describes himself as honest, inspirational, and humorous (and he does a great Larry the Cable Guy impression). More so, Daniel wants his message to others to be, “never give up, stay in the fight, and never be ashamed to reach out”.
I also had the opportunity to meet with Jared Bullock, a member of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Special Forces Group (a Green Beret unit), who was injured in an IED blast in Afghanistan. Jared is a double amputee and an Adaptive Athlete who can often be found with his wife Jesica at OEW events across the states.
Me: What does being an OEW sponsored athlete mean to you?
Jared: “I think for me being an adaptive athlete, it allows you to get out and show the world that your injuries really don’t define you, you define yourself. You can take all of the limitations that people have about you in their minds and just obliterate them.”
Me: How many OEW events have you participated in?
Me: How many OCR events have you done?
Jared: “So to clarify, I actually got blown up in November 2013, so this is like my sixth race in under a year and a half.”
Me: Is there an OEW event or OCR moment that made you crack up laughing?
Jared: “Today, the gut buster we had to belly roll over and I said ‘no, no, I got this one’ and I totally hit it and I sat there like a frog on a log just hanging there, like ‘okay come save me’.”
Me: What is your most memorable OCR event and why?
Jared: “Probably for me, would be the first Tough Mudder I ran. It was ten months after my injury and I ran that one in West Virginia…11 miles is just not fun (sarcastic snicker).”
Me: Have you participated in events other than OCR?
Jared: “No it has really just been OCR’s because for me it’s a way to still evaluate myself physically. I am still a Green Beret and I am getting ready to retire, but since I can’t do that any more, OCRs let me see where I am still at.”
Me: If you could give advice to someone struggling with physical or mental obstacles what would it be?
Jared: “I mean honestly, you don’t even know what you are capable of unless you go out and try and you just have to take chances. Don’t accept what you have and that’s the end of it… you can go out there and find new things and you’d be surprised at what you can do.”
Me: Did you ever do any OCR events prior to being military?
Jared: “No, I was in for twelve years and when I was home, I was home.”
Me: Could you have ever pictured yourself participating in events like this?
Jared: “Honestly no.”
Me: How has doing obstacle racing changed your mindset?
Jared: “Uh, I think for me personally it has given me a new perspective on what I can and can’t do. Also what I thought I couldn’t do, but I actually can. So it has allowed me to push my limits and it has given me a better outlook after my accident like ‘hey just because you’re a double amputee doesn’t mean you cant do anything’.”
Me: If you could describe yourself in three words or less, what would they be, or a phrase you live by?
Jared: “Uh….I guess, ‘your life have no limits unless you let it’.”
Me: Is there anything else we should know?
Jared: “Physical fitness is the most important thing and there is no excuse to be lazy.”
Having the opportunity to interview amazing people like Daniel and Jared has taught me several lessons:
1. OEW is an organization that truly empowers wounded service members to never stop pushing forward.
2. OEW sponsored athletes come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but events bring them together as one solid unit.
3. The Masked Athlete Team looks scary in their gear, but these are some bad mama jamas!
4. No matter what your journey has been, there are always people willing to help you through the trenches.
5. Wounded is wounded.
6. There is no excuse for saying you can’t do something. Watching these men conquer obstacles in the mud with an entire support system by their sides is one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had.
If you would like to learn more about Operation Enduring Warrior and their upcoming events, you can check them out here.
*Photos By: Operation Enduring Warrior.