By retired Navy Lt. j.g. Laura Root
Root, an accomplished member of Team Navy, is enrolled in Navy Wounded Warrior – Safe Harbor, the Navy’s wounded warrior support program.
Last year, I attended the Warrior Games for the first time. At the time, I was at war with myself about my participation in the event because I didn’t appear disabled. I also worried about losing my career because I had been diagnosed with a type of muscular dystrophy. Invisible wounds, I thought, should be sustained on the battlefield, not in office buildings. I feared I wouldn’t be able to relate to my teammates because I suffered from a serious illness, not a combat wound.
I signed up later in life to be a Navy intelligence officer so I could be there for my fellow servicemen and women. I was ecstatic to be able to use my talents in international affairs and languages to protect Americans. The Navy was the ideal situation for me.
However, three years into my service, my career ended because I wasn’t able to deploy. I started off with a great set of orders, and then – because of my illness – I wasn’t able to complete even a small fraction of what I had set out to do. I began searching for every type of therapy and research available for muscular dystrophy – the invisible disease threatening to rob me of my physical and mental abilities.
When I arrived at the first training camp for Warrior Games, I was skeptical, anti-social and damaged. I hadn’t smiled in more than a year, despite possessing a naturally rosy outlook. I had no real relationships that nourished me. I had no idea how to adapt to my new life circumstances.
Most of all, I was tired of hearing people say things such as, “ I can’t imagine what I would do in your situation.” It was as if the entire world had given up on the rest of my life. I had to live with a different set of daily constraints, but I wasn’t ready to consider that a disability would set me apart from the majority … until I met a community set apart.
At the training camp, I picked up an air rifle for the first time. Less than six months later, in Colorado, I prepared to compete at the shooting range at the Olympic Training Center – a place where the very best in the world train for elite sports events. In my first shooting competition at Warrior Games, I dedicated every single shot to one of my teammates and to everything we both still wanted to achieve. And I won a gold medal. I was the first woman to do so since the inception of the Warrior Games.
Within Team Navy, and within our broader wounded warrior community, every single person has a different situation, yet they are never identified by their disease, injury or physical constraints. When we are together, we are wholly focused on what we can achieve. And we help each other to find humor in the oddest of situations. When we laugh about these things, parts of us heal. Suddenly, whatever was bothering someone becomes ridiculous or absurd instead of depressing.
The bottom line is that we’ve all faced major upheavals and disappointments – from explosions, diseases, divorces and depression. Every single one of us has faced terrible situations, but our lives continue with immense joy and gratitude.
Earlier this month, I had the great privilege of attending the inaugural Invictus Games in London. The event – which was modeled after the Warrior Games – brought together wounded warrior athletes from 13 countries for four days of intense, but friendly, competition. Interacting with other militaries during the trip put into perspective what the Warrior Games really mean.
As the largest military in the world, the U.S. armed forces are uniquely poised to set the tone about how the world deals with its disabled veterans – whether those wounds are visible or invisible. As I begin my second Warrior Games, I share a joy with all of the competitors that we are a community set apart because we overcome, achieve and adapt.