The notes of the Star Spangled Banner drifted above a string of red, white and blue lights hanging over the flight deck of the USS Midway on the evening of June 2, kicking off the 2023 Department of Defense Warrior Games.
Serving as an outlet of recovery through adaptive sports competitions, the annual Warrior Games, which started in 2010 and rotates locations in the United States every year, celebrates the resiliency and mental toughness of wounded, ill and injured active duty and veteran U.S. military service members.
For the first time in the history of the games, San Diego is the host city and Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado is the venue for the athletic events that include eight individual sports and three team sports.
Challenge for 200 athletes
This year’s challenge, spanning from June 2 to 12, was launched with a patriotic opening ceremony with 200 athletes on the Midway to represent their respective teams: Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command.
Travis Claytor, Director of Strategic Communications for the DoD Warrior Games, said he couldn’t imagine a better place to host a kickoff event than the historic flight deck. It was the perfect fit to match the mission and vision of the Warrior Games, he said.
In fact, this is the first year that the opening ceremony was held on an aircraft carrier.
“I’ve spent over 25 years in the Army, and I was a pilot, so naturally, I am in heaven here.”Deputy Director for the joint information bureau for the DoD Warrior Games Ricky Ray Sims said of the Midway.
“I’ve spent over 25 years in the Army, and I was a pilot, so naturally, I am in heaven here,” Deputy Director for the joint information bureau for the DoD Warrior Games Ricky Ray Sims said of the Midway. “I spent the last 14 years as a Department of Army civilian. Out of all of those, this is the coolest place I’ve ever been to have one of these functions.”
With his many years of experience in the Army, Sims said that being surrounded by planes and fellow military members felt like home.
He joked that when he retires, he’s going to invent an air freshener company that replicates the scents of a flight deck or jet fuel.
“There’s a lot of crazy guys out here that would know what I’m talking about,” Sims said. “It’s just a lot of memories.”
Navigating a new normal
A deep sense of camaraderie and respect coursed through every moment of the June 2 opening ceremony, showcasing the exceptional resiliency of the men and women in the U.S. military who deal with wounds, illnesses and injuries, both visible and invisible.
Julia Melzer, Mass Communication Chief who does the protocol for team Navy, said the brotherhood and sisterhood runs deep within the Navy, specifically referencing those competing in the Warrior Games Challenge.
“What these athletes overcome, how they find their new normal, and how they navigate that, is just paramount,” Melzer said. “The adaptive sports programs that each branch brings, provides a new sense of brotherhood that is unique and on its own.”
“The adaptive sports programs that each branch brings, provides a new sense of brotherhood that is unique and on its own.”-Julia Melzer, Mass Communication Chief who does the protocol for team Navy.
Kallie Quinn, head coach of the Air Force’s team and Sports Operations Specialist, has been involved with the Warrior Games since its inception in 2010.
She said that adaptive sports have become a big part of an athlete’s recovery program.
“It gives [athletes] a sense of teamwork back, and it gives them a sense of, ‘Hey, even though I’ve gone through this, I can actually go do things that I can do with my friends and family,’” Quinn said.
The games showcase the unique bond that comes from going through similar journeys, along with the competitive spirit among the teams, Quinn said.
Warrior Games Challenge slightly reduced
Different from the annual Warrior Games, this year’s Warrior Games Challenge is slightly reduced in scope because Team U.S. will be taking competitors to represent the Department of Defense at the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf, Germany in September, Claytor said.
With this slightly reduced scale, the Warrior Challenge has eight individual sports and three team sports, consisting of wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and wheelchair rugby.
At the opening ceremony, each team was recognized with a short video to highlight the athletes in action, with a background song of their team’s choice.
Emcee Liberty Zabala, a Navy Reservist
She emphasized the resilience, determination, and recovery of the Warrior Games athletes, which is being celebrated through the camaraderie and competition of the games this week.
Since the games are only open to those who have access to Naval Air Station North Island, Claytor encouraged the general public to watch the livestream at https://dodwarriorgames.com/, where there will be full coverage of the event complete with announcers and interviews with the athletes.