WEST POINT, NY (Shannon Collins) – Camaraderie and fellowship has been the highlight of the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Military Academy here for medically retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano.
About 250 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and United Kingdom armed forces are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
It was his first time racing in the wheelchair race, and he had limited practice in the special chair used for that type of racing.
“I was trying to get all the kinks out and learn the gears, but I’m excited about it,” he said. “I’ll just keep going from here and push to get it right.”
Tuimalealiifano joined the Army and served for 13 years as a civil affairs specialist. “I joined because I really wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I really loved what the country is all about and the history of how we became [what we are].”
He served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. While in Afghanistan at Firebase Cobra, Tuimalealiifano dealt with regular mortar attacks and fought in firefights. He said he’s a jumpmaster and had been jumping out of airplanes for 13 years, so when he fell out of bed and hit a table trying to avoid a mortar attack, he didn’t think too much of it at the time.
“We didn’t know it at the time but I had fractured vertebrae from an area firefight,” he said. The fall had exacerbated it. “We just kept going on and about three months later, throughout my time there, it had just been very painful. They didn’t know exactly what it was. I just kept going on with the pain, through the pain. They were short manned on the base, and I stayed.
“It was hard for the choppers to get in, and our supply route was damaged,” he continued. “There was a flood, and it ruined the bridge, so we had to try and take back a lot of the checkpoints and routes. I stayed with my boys.”
He said if he had known just how injured he was, he would have left, but that he stayed for his team, even though the pain became severe. He’s classified with a C5, C6 quad spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair for mobility.
Tuimalealiifano said training and competing in adaptive sports has been beneficial for him. “Adaptive sports have helped me do a lot of things,” he added. “They’ve helped me progress. I got stronger, and that’s what I’m doing still. I’m just getting stronger. It’s been amazing.”
This is his second DoD Warrior Games, and he said he enjoys every minute of it.
“I love it, really, there are no words for it,” he said. “I’m really excited to be part of the group and part of the event. The Warrior Games is very fulfilling for anybody, for any injury level, for any person to come out and still have something to look forward to. We come from an active lifestyle in the military. We always had a routine or an objective or mission. There was always something we were doing. Once we get out or we’re injured, now we’re dealing with our injury and trying to get back, and sometimes you miss the competition level of trying to get into the sports.
“This year’s been great because not only have I been competitive, but the camaraderie, meeting people — I’m just really blessed to be part of the group and amongst the great men and women and a lot of great volunteers who help out,” Tuimalealiifano said.
Tuimalealiifano said his family tries to come out and support him as much as they can, such as last year’s DoD Warrior Games and at the Invictus Games last month in Orlando, Florida. His favorite sport is wheelchair rugby, he added, and he said it was an honor not only to represent the Socom team, but also to be part of Team USA.
“It was an amazing, awesome feeling I won’t forget,” he said. “It was really good to represent the country as a whole. It was awesome being amongst the different nations with a great bunch of people.”
Tuimalealiifano said hopes to compete again at the Invictus Games and in other veteran competitions, and that he recommends the DoD Warrior Games to anyone considering trying out.
“Come out and check it out,” he said. “There’s a lot to offer for people with different injury levels, illnesses and injuries. There’s a spot for anybody and everybody. Come be amongst the fellowship. It’s a blessing.”