Veterans Go for the Gold at Sochi Paralympic Games

PHOTO: Jonathan Lujan of the USA competes in the Mens Slalom Standing LW3 race during the IPC Alpine Adaptive Slalom World Cup on day eight of the Winter Games NZ at Coronet Peak, Aug. 22, 2013, in Queenstown, New Zealand.
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As the Paralympic Games kick off in Sochi, Russia, today, the U.S. team will feature a higher number of military veterans or active service members than ever before.

Of 80 athletes representing the U.S., 18 are either military veterans or active duty service members and include former Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine and Coast Guard members.

Two athletes are still on active duty.

Jon Lujan, a Marine veteran and alpine skier, was picked to be the U.S. flag bearer at the opening ceremony on Friday.

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Lujan wrote on TeamUSA.org that he was overcome with emotion after realizing he had been picked as flag bearer during his first Paralympic Games.

“I am getting a little choked up just reading this,” wrote Lujan. “Our flag has always had a deep meaning to me, growing up with grandpas who served in World War II, uncles who served in Vietnam and a father who was a police officer. ... A little-known secret is that I have a tattoo of one on my right calf.”

Lujan was disabled after he ruptured two disks in his back during a mission in Kuwait. Complications during surgery left him with permanent nerve damage and paralysis in his lower legs.

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The majority of the veteran athletes are split between the Nordic ski team, where eight out of 16 athletes have had some military experience, and the U.S. National Sled Hockey teams, where four players have been in the military. Other athletes are competing in snowboarding, wheelchair curling and alpine skiing.

One of the hockey stars, 26-year-old Josh Sweeney thought he would never get to play hockey again after he stepped on an IED during a trip to Afghanistan.

“I remember thinking in my head, ‘Oh this is what it’s like to get blown up.’” Sweeney told ABC News.

Sweeney ended up having a portion of both his legs amputated, but was able to join a sled hockey team soon after being cleared by his physical therapist.

“As soon as I got out, I fell in love with it,” said Sweeney of taking the ice the first time after his injury. “You put that jersey on, you feel like you’re part of the community.”

At his first Paralympics, Sweeney will join his teammates in attempting to score a repeat win. The team did not give up a single goal during the 2010 games.

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