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Iraq veteran lets the games, and healing, begin

At this year's wheelchair sports competition in Spokane, Wash., a newcomer -- a Marine whose brain was injured -- tests his mental and physical strength.

July 18, 2009|Kim Murphy

SPOKANE, WASH. — Cpl. Anthony Alegre's unit knew the Humvees they drove through the streets of Ramadi, Iraq, were woefully under-armored.

They stuffed sandbags in the doors, but when roadside bombs turned the sand into shrapnel, they began wedging pieces of metal and wood around their seats. No use. The car bomb that hit Alegre's patrol on May 29, 2004, killed three of his fellow Marines and left four pieces of metal in his brain.

No one expected the 20-year-old infantryman to survive. The doctor in the Baghdad hospital, unequipped to reattach a piece of his skull that had blown off, lodged it in Alegre's abdomen for safekeeping, wrapped a bandage over his brain and put him on a plane to Germany.

The young Marine lay in a coma for three months, then spent the next year learning to talk, sit up and feed himself.

Still in a wheelchair much of the time, the now-25-year-old veteran picked up a pellet rifle this week and fired 60 precise rounds into a target across a long room -- testimony to three years of weapons training and five years of audacious will.

"Not bad for the first time," Alegre said quietly as he laid down the gun and stretched his neck in a wide circle to ease the strain.

Later in the week, he bowled a 119, hurled a shot put and javelin, and batted a softball, all competitions in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which have become the largest such sporting event in the world.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have filled the ranks of the 29th annual games, which this year drew more than 500 competitors in events such as table tennis, swimming, basketball and the no-holds-barred game of quad rugby once called murderball.

The roadside bombs that have been the enemy's signature weapon in the two wars have added veterans with brain injuries to the amputees and spine-injured men and women who compete in the games. The brain trauma has left some unable to walk, and others unable to focus.

"This will be the second year that we're dealing with the traumatic brain injuries," said Tom Brown, director of the veterans' games, which are being held in Spokane this year and conclude today.

Those with "closed head injuries can almost seem normal," he said, "until they do something, and then their coordination is off, their thought process is slowed down, and they may have the ability level of a . . . quadriplegic."


"No ma'am. I've never done anything like this," Alegre said on the opening day of the games, his slight frame resting comfortably in his wheelchair, his voice a soft, gentle Georgia drawl with a touch of Marine Corps bravado.

"But it's better to go ahead, rather than to say . . . 'I don't want to do it. I'm stuck in a wheelchair. What's the point?' " he said.

"God spared me for a reason. And I'm going to see what I can and can't do."

Alegre had pretty much always wanted to be a Marine. His older brother, Nick, was in the Corps, and when Anthony turned 17, he begged his parents to let him enlist.

He went off for training at Camp Pendleton, was shipped out to Okinawa, Japan, and before long found himself in Iraq. He'd call his mother as often as he could, trying to be reassuring, telling her he was fine. But Ester Parkerson could hear in his voice that he wasn't.

He'd written a letter to his stepfather, with special instructions that she not be allowed to see it, but she searched the house until she found it.

"He was talking about demons; he was talking about fear. He was talking about weird stuff, and I didn't understand exactly what he meant. So I asked my husband, and he said, pretty much, [Anthony] . . . was afraid his time was coming. He had seen a lot of his buddies die. When he called, he'd say, 'Please pray for us, we need your prayers.' "

So when the call came that her son's skull had been shattered by a makeshift bomb, Parkerson thought she was prepared. What she wasn't ready for was what she saw at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a week later.

"All the muscle was gone. Everything. He was attached to every tube and cable you could think of. There were machines breathing for him, he had a tube in his stomach feeding him. . . . I just grabbed his hand and I said, 'Oh my God, what have they done?' "

Nick ventured into the room, ripped off his sterile gloves and walked out again, refusing to enter. His sister, Alissa, rushed out crying.

Parkerson soon realized that she wasn't alone: Legions of parents had war-ravaged sons and daughters confined to hospital rooms.

"They were coming in, bleeding through the ears, bleeding through their nose. I told this one mother, 'Regardless of how bad he looks right now, you hold on to him with all you got, because God's gonna take care of him,' " Parkerson said.

"The thing that broke my heart," she said of the injured veterans, is "they can't talk. So they give you this look. They all have this look of kind of desperation. . . .

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