To increase understanding of the daily life of wounded soldiers, the American Red Cross partnered with the Wounded Transition Unit at the Army base in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and hosted the Adaptive Sports Expo, which showed off the physical training activities that WTU members do every day.
They could hit the ball with any part of their body, but they had to keep part of their rear end on the floor. Those were the volleyball rules on March 14 in the Vilseck/Grafenwoehr Complex, where wounded soldiers and able-bodied soldiers came together to play seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
“Having the community come out is great for us because we usually don’t get that a lot,” said Specialist Jonathan Ray, a member of the WTU in Germany. WTUs are interim units in the Army that help soldiers recover from an injury or illness and then assess their ability to return to active duty.
But would people actually show up? That was the question plaguing Red Cross Assistant Station Manager Tammie Pech, who was tasked with recruitment. She invited everyone in her network, and then went out and bought enough snacks to, well, feed an army.
As she set up the snack table that day, her co-worker doubted the turnout would ever be large enough to consume all of the food she purchased. But to everyone’s surprise, almost 70 soldiers, Red Cross volunteers and family members came to participate and cheer on the games.
“At first the soldiers were all really nervous,” Pech said. But then they jumped in the wheelchairs and started pushing them around and their competitive spirit kicked in. Soon the men and women were fighting for the wheelchairs, impatient to get another turn in the games.
Melanie Ray, Jonathan’s wife, sat in the bleachers with her children beaming at the activity swirling around her. “It’s nice to see him be able to interact with other people and, you know, kind of have that camaraderie,” she said. Previously, they had felt a sense of exclusion in the military community due to Jonathan’s injury. But this kind of event boosted their spirits and helped them feel more connected to the other units and to the community.
Even though some WTU soldiers are planning to return to active duty, Jonathan said the biggest misconception about them is that they’re all getting out of the military. “It’s nice to have the community come out and see that we’re still here. We’re still soldiers. We’re still active,” he said.
Capt. Brandon Thomas, who brought about 20 of his soldiers to scrimmage at the event, can vouch for how active the WTU is. He said his soldiers who were playing at the expo kept saying to him, “’Sir, this is hard.’” Besides keeping half their rear ends on the floor during volleyball, they also could not push their wheelchairs more than twice before dribbling the ball, or it was considered a travel.
“I think it’s awesome that we’re getting a chance to integrate and toss out the window the stigma that is associated with WTUs,” said Thomas. “We need to partner together to ensure that their recovery is rapid and that they still feel a part of the Army.”
Two and a half hours later the event ended. Not a drop of food was left, and it turned out to be a bigger success than Pech or Jonathan thought was possible.
However, the fun and games are just beginning in Vilseck. On April 30 and May 1, the Red Cross in partnership with the WTU, Wounded Warrior Project, and Army Community Service are hosting an Amazing Race-style competition where teams of three, with at least one WTU member per team, will race around Garmish, Germany, chasing clues and vying for prizes.
These kinds of collaborations and partnerships are just one way that the Red Cross is supporting military members and their families around the world. Even Pech, who just moved to Vilseck two months ago from a Red Cross position in Iowa, was blown away by the Red Cross activity on base. “We do so many things here. My days just fly.”
Stay tuned to redcross.org at the end of April and the first of May for more coverage on the Amazing Race presented by the American Red Cross, Wounded Warrior Project and Army Community Service taking place at the U.S. military post in Garmish, Germany.