As wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing American, British and Australian teams take to the track today to compete for medals, medically retired Army Staff Sgt. Megan Grudzinski hopes to break her own records from last year’s Department of Defense Warrior Games and that Team Army will have a strong showing.
The DoD Warrior Games are an annual event allowing veterans to compete in Paralympic-style sports from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force.
Last year, at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, Grudzinski joined the Army team as an alternate and broke the DoD Warrior Games records for the for the 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter women’s open track categories, earning gold medals in all three. She also earned a bronze medal in the 50-yard breaststroke swim category.
This year, she’s competing in the 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter open category for track, the 50-yard freestyle, 50-yard backstroke, 50-yard breaststroke and 100-yard freestyle in swimming, and also in the cycling competition.
Grudzinski joined the Army a month after 9/11 attacks because she felt like “that was my purpose, to do something. It just felt like the right thing to do,” she said. She deployed to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 with a combat engineer battalion from Darien, Illinois. She has post-traumatic stress from her deployment. She also participated in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup and adopted a dog from New Orleans, Noah, who lives with her mom.
She said she ignored the PTSD symptoms initially and made excuses, like being hypervigilant and having nightmares. She said getting help was one of the hardest things she did because when she came back, “I thought, I have all limbs, what do I have to be sad about? And as a female, I felt I had to be tougher than everyone else. I was a staff sergeant in charge of men. I couldn’t be weak,” Grudzinski said. “I was one of the fastest [runners] in the company because that’s what I had to do. I had to be the toughest, strongest and when you come back, and you’re waking up from nightmares you can’t control, you’re like, `What’s wrong with me?’ I’m a bad ass. I’m strong.”
She started seeing a therapist who encouraged her to continue running.
Grudzinski said the Army team means more to her than anything because they’re like a family.
“I have this family, and I’ve noticed that even when we leave, I talk to some of them every week on the phone or when they’re having going through a hard time,” she said. “It helps me with things like with PTSD. I’m going through a divorce, and they would just call me every day and check on me and tell me how important I was to them and that really got me through. Adaptive sports have really been amazing for me. Being here with the other athletes means more to me than anything.”
Grudzinski, who was an Army chemical specialist, said the Navy has stepped up the support with this year’s games and that the athletes have felt the city of Chicago’s support.
“They’ve really done a lot, and I feel like Chicago’s really come out to support us, which is really amazing because I deployed with a unit out of here and people know about it,” she said. “They’re like, I’m going to come see you. It’s just been really cool that the word’s being spread about the games because it makes the athletes feel important. Some of these athletes never thought they would swim again. They have these amputations. Some thought they would never bike again. So many are doing things they literally though they’d never do again so when they see people, no matter how they perform at the games, supporting them, it’s really brought people out of dark places.”
The Army veteran recommends adaptive sports to others who may be ill, wounded or injured, especially those with invisible injuries like PTSD.
“For me, it was like being at the bottom of a dark well with no light. I felt like I was never going to get out. It wasn’t easy. I thought I was a burden and people would be better off without me but there’s people who love you, who care about you. Now, I look around and these people care about me so much and you may not see it at the time but there’s people who care about you and you just have to be brave and reach out,” she said.
“Having an injury doesn’t make me any less of a person,” she said. “I’m not broken. Because of my military training, I’m really good with handling stressful situations. I’m pushing through, and it makes me a better person. I try not to see it as a limitation anymore.”
Grudzinski is currently pursuing a degree in psychiatric nursing and hopes to work with geriatric and veteran patients.
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