Army veteran Michael Fradera, 30, was the victim of an IED explosion that completely demolished the vehicle he was traveling in outside of Baghdad in August 2007.
Fradera woke up three days after the incident in a VA hospital in Texas to find that both of his legs had been amputated.
Like so many other wounded veterans returning from Iraq, Fradera was about to set out on a new chapter of his life, wherein he would be forced to relearn how to eat, sleep, and carry on with the everyday activities of life as an amputee.
"I went through a period of depression and hopelessness after I was released from hospital," Fradera explained. "I had to stay in a wheelchair, and felt that I couldn't do anything for myself. I was really, really mad."
Fradera was soon fitted with prosthetic legs and returned home to Lakeland, Fla., to began intensive physical therapy to regain his strength and relearn how to perform simple tasks that he once took for granted.
Though his depression and anger remained, Fradera soon found solace in an unlikely source: a weeklong sports clinic for disabled veterans.
"I was pretty much sitting at home all the time, and then the VA hospital told me about the program, and I thought I might as well try it," said Fradera.
Fradera joined over 50 recently injured military veterans who set out to overcome both mental and physical disabilities by participating in the first National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic.
The summer sports clinic is the newest national rehabilitation special event sponsored by the Department of Veterans' Affairs along with Help Hospitalized Veterans, Veterans Canteen Service, American Optometric Association, Booz Allen Hamilton, Challenged America, Marchon, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, Cisco, Invacare and Top End. The clinic introduced wounded veterans to sports such as adaptive surfing, sailing, kayaking, cycling and track and field for week-long event in San Diego, Sept. 28 through Oct. 3.
"I don't think I've ever had such a good time before in my life," Fradera said. "And I think some guys walked away from the clinic a different person."
Learning More Than a New Sport
The goal of the sports clinic is not just to have disabled veterans play sports for a week, but to teach and encourage the participants to become active in their own communities, according to Sandy Trombetta, the VA special events coordinator.
"I think what they take home from this is they realize what they can do and not what they can't do," Trombetta said. "We all know that playing sports is important to them for alleviation of stress, as a way to cope, for weight control and good nutrition, and a lot of other secondary factors that are great medical outcomes."
"But beyond that, we know this program can help people be far more self actualized, better adjusted and more likely to be involved in the community around them when they return home at the end of the week," Trombetta added.
One of the most unique aspects of the summer sports clinic is that the veterans attending were encouraged to bring their personal therapists and family members to San Diego -- not only to have their friends and loved ones rooting them on from the sidelines, but to teach their families how to participate in these activities alongside the veterans.
Trombetta said that their hope in coordinating this new summer clinic was that the injured veterans would learn how to partake in new activities that they could then continue to enjoy, even after they went back home.
"With this program, we also trained care providers and family members and coaches how to do these activities in the hope they'd all learn together and could help [the veterans] to continue it when they get home," Trombetta said. "There's always a better outcome when there's a good support system, and we don't want this to be just a one-week thing for these guys."
Fradera was joined at the clinic by his wife as well as his physical therapist, Jennifer Day, an adaptive sports coordinator at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa, Fla.
Day said she noticed a positive change in Fradera after he returned from the clinic.
"A lot of the wounded veterans -- and Mike is the same -- they run through all the levels of disappointment and they have a lot of anger towards themselves and towards others and family members," Day explained. "But I've seen a huge change in Mike from the time he said he'd go to the clinic to today."
"He's just been totally different. He communicates better, seems happier and more excited," Day added. "And I think this experience even improved his relationship with his wife -- she was constantly talking to me about problems with his anger but he really relaxed because of this and I saw that as the biggest change in him."
As One Door Closes, Another Opens
Fradera was not the only veteran who walked away from the clinic feeling invigorated.
Stephen Bruggeman, 46, lost his leg while serving in the military in Kodiak, Alaska. Like Fradera, Bruggeman said he experienced the waves of shock, grief and anger following the accident.
But Bruggeman said his life changed when he first stood up on a surf board at the summer sports clinic.
"I never would have thought I would have tried surfing, but the coach who taught us how to surf was also a right leg amputee below the knee, and he competes with people without disabilities and he wins," Bruggeman explained. "Seeing him out there really inspired me and showed me that there's a lot out there I can still do. And I stood up on the board."
Bruggeman, who lives in South Dakota, said he plans on continuing surfing even in his landlocked home state.
"It inspires us and reminds us of the things we can do and … we can investigate more and try to keep going with them," Bruggeman said. "Now I want to try kite-surfing on the lakes out here, so I'm gonna see if I can't try to pick that up, and I never would have thought to try it until I figured out that I had pretty good balance when I went out there to surf at the sports clinic."
Like Bruggeman, Fradera also took away a new-found hobby – and perhaps a life goal -- from this year's summer sports clinic.
"Hand cycling," Fradera said. "It's my goal now to hand cycle for the U.S. team in the Paralympics."
Beyond the experience of participating in so many activities that they never thought they'd be able to do, both Bruggeman and Fradera spoke of the unbelievable bond that formed between themselves and their teammates at the clinic.
"I live in an area with few people with my problem, and to come together with these brothers who are in the same situation as me … it makes you open up and makes you happy," Fradera said. "This experience really opened people's eyes and showed them that there's things out there we can still do and we can be a part of this world again."
By the time closing ceremonies rolled around at the end of the week, Bruggeman said hardly any of the "brothers" had a dry eye.
"On the last night, a lot of us felt like sallies and got all teary-eyed," Bruggeman said. "We instantly bonded. I've never made friends like that so fast in my life."
Both Bruggeman and Fradera said that they had such a great experience at the clinic that they also plan on being first-time participants in this year's 22nd National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colorado
"We all sit in hospitals and feel sorry for ourselves…but attending one of these programs can really turn your life around," Bruggeman explained. "You'll learn how to do new things, and soon enough you'll start to take so much pride in doing these things that you'll turn it around into taking pride in everything else that you do."