The Eccentric Veteran


US Air Force veteran Andy Bernt is a staple at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games sees many familiar faces

You couldn’t miss Andy Bernt.

The 53-year-old Air Force veteran decked himself out in all kinds of colorful gear for Friday night’s 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games quad rugby competition inside the Philadelphia Convention Center.

A Pittsburgh Steelers fan, he donned a yellow-and-black striped beret with Steelers pins on his head and wore a pair of yellow-lined sunglasses on his face.


Rugby coach Pat McCloskey is a first-time participant of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Photo John Groth

Even more eccentric was his bright lime-green T-shirt that made his muscular frame pop. Two towels – one pink-and-white striped and the other gold – sat on his lap. He added a pair of black shorts with a white stripe on each side and a water bottle stuffed in one of his socks to boot.

“This is one week where I get to have a good time,” Bernt said while watching the matches.

This year, he’s already earned a silver medal in table tennis and participated in field events and wheelchair basketball.  He’ll compete in weightlifting Saturday.

Now in his fifth year of attending and participating the NVWG, Bernt enjoys every moment of the event. Nearly a decade ago, he wasn’t sure how many more he’d have left.

One December night in 2005, Bernt went to bed knowing he had Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The next morning, he caught another disease, transverse myelitis, and woke up paralyzed.

“Being in a chair, quite frankly, I was devastated,” Bernt said.

Months later, his physical and recreational therapists suggested he start training for the 2008 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb. The weightlifter from Tampa, Fla., thought he’d give them a try.

“It opened up my eyes, the Games itself. To see the 6-700 athletes from current wars to Vietnam veterans, amputees, quads, para[plegics] just to come out here and just compete,” Bernt says. “Even though we compete, we make friends. And what I like about it is to bring the new people in that’s never experienced what I’ve experienced. And if I can get two or three newly-injured from Tampa, Fla., and bring them to the Games like I did this year, they’ve already thanked me a thousand times.”

While Bernt is an experienced Games participant, Pat McCloskey got his first taste of the NVWG this year. The 29-year-old from Philadelphia served as a volunteer quad rugby coach this week. Although he’s not a veteran, he’s played the past four years for the Mage Eagles quad rugby team based out of Philadelphia. And his team was approached about the opportunity of coaching teams at the Games a couple of weeks ago.

“I think it’s a real honor to be here and help with all the veterans and what they do,” McCloskey said. “I think it’s really something special here and I’m really glad to be a part of it.”

A C-6 quadriplegic, McCloskey was injured when he broke his neck playing ice hockey in July of 2006. Enough people from the Mage team kept approaching him to play and later he started playing quad rugby with them.

McCloskey admitted coaching is different than playing, but still fulfilling.

“I was coaching and pretty much just showing the younger guys the ropes and just trying to get all these guys who hadn’t played together to try and mesh,” McCloskey said. “Especially with all the different set points that our teams have, it’s hard to get the lineups in and make sure that we’re still competitive.”

 

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