U.S. Army veteran John Adamiec competes in quad rugby during the 2015 NVWG in Dallas, Texas. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio
The U.S. Army mantra train as you fight carries on for veterans facing spinal-cord injury
Since 1775, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have answered the call to serve their country. While some were drafted into the military, many chose to volunteer and fulfill their sense of national pride and duty. For U.S. Army veteran John Adamiec, it was a life-long goal.
In fact, Adamiec was so eager to enlist, he persuaded his parents to sign his enlistment age waiver and had his military occupational specialty (MOS) all decided long before graduating high school. He was set.
Adamiec soon joined the long list of servicemen and women before him vying to become a United States soldier and if nothing else, would take his place in history as a military veteran.
Like many before him, Adamiec was eventually sent into combat as part of the Operation Enduring Freedom (EOF) campaign in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. Unlike many, he had the good fortune of returning home safely and in one piece.
After nearly six years of service, Adamiec achieved the rank of sergeant and was looking forward to the next chapter in his life. An avid motorcyclist, Adamiec was riding in a small pack of motorcycles when, for unknown reasons, he blacked out and lost control of his motorcycle, sending him into one of the other bikes in the group.
“I flipped over the handlebars and landed 60 feet away on my head,” says Adamiec. “I wasn’t wearing a helmet, hit the pavement hard and broke my neck at C4/C6.”
U.S. Army veteran John Adamiec trains for rugby. Photo Mary Kathryn Vebber.
Adamiec spent three weeks after his wreck in a coma, hooked to a respirator, clinging to life. After more than one month in the intensive care unit, he was sent to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) for six months.
Like many spinal-cord injury patients, the reality of what occurred hit hard and for many, the mental battle can be more daunting than the physical challenges to come. For Adamiec, the transition from able-bodied solider, husband, father, friend, to dependent wheelchair user was sometimes more than he could cope with.
“It’s a lot more physically demanding because everything I do is accomplished with only my upper body,” says Adamiec.
“I have no use of my body from the nipple line down, so the simple task of sitting up in bed is done by swinging my arms in the air from side to side to use the momentum to turn on my side, then pushing my body up so I can straighten my legs out to sit. Essentially my arms have become legs.”
Adamiec jokes that everyday at the gym is “legs day,” and after more than two years post-injury the emotional challenges remain. He experienced spells of depression and withdrew from old habits and friends, only getting out of bed for medical appointments.
“I took for granted something I never thought about before … my independence,” says Adamiec. “The fact I needed somebody to help me with everything from eating to going to the bathroom didn’t suck … it scared me. I’d imagine, what if that someone wasn’t there one day?”
But Adamiec was fortunate to have a solid support system in his wife, children and friends. He even credits his experience in the Army in helping him through the dark days of recovery and transition.
“The values I learned in the Army are still a large part of my life,” says Adamiec. “More importantly, the whole ‘train as you fight’ concept has been instrumental in my recovery. I live to be independent and don’t ask for help unless I really need it.”
Since his accident, he’s discovered wheelchair sports that he credits for helping him keep active and involved. Slowly, he’s discovering ways to merge the pleasures and interests of his former “able bodied” self while not allowing his disability to define his current self.
“My passion is wheelchair quad rugby,” says Adamiec. “I train for that all the time. I’m always lifting weights at the gym.”
Off the rugby court, Adamiec plays the drums with the Pitt Community College New Horizons Band continuing education program and despite having only one usable hand, says he can play almost as well as he did before his accident.
Adamiec is living up to the Army’s mantra in more ways than even he thought possible by passing his knowledge and experience on to newly injured veterans and trying to be the best husband and father he can to his family.
“His intensity is contagious to those around him, and he does it all with a smile on his face,” says physical trainer Matt Olson. “I know with John's work ethic, and willingness to grow, he will continue achieving goals.”
In June, the PVA member achieved one more goal and joined more than 600 veterans in Dallas for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG).
Adamiec was one of many first-timers to push the envelope of endurance by participating in events such as weightlifting, track and field and the ever-popular obstacle course, or "slalom", event. Adamiec won silver medals in the powerlifting and quad rugby events.
“My wife and I had a blast at the games,” says Adamiec. “I learned so much from being able to compete with experienced players. All the athletes were real nice and you could tell they were all veterans … that brotherhood feeling you miss when you get out was there again.”
As for Dallas, says Adamiec, “That was the coolest. Everywhere we went was accessible. I’ve never been anywhere this accessible before. I had no problem going down the street to the store by myself. It wasn’t too hot; there was a nice breeze, which is why my wife and I were always on walks throughout the city.”
The weeklong event, hosted by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is designed to introduce accessible sports and recreational activities to injured and disabled veterans.
For more information on the NVWG, visit wheelchairgames.org.
Photos appearing in the gallery by Christopher DiVirgilio and Mary Kathryn Vebber