When Will Reynolds, a 32-year-old retired soldier, bought his oldest son his first real bicycle, the 4-year-old looked at him with shining eyes.
"He's excited to have a bike like daddy," Reynolds said.
It's a common reaction among tots getting their first big boy bikes. But for Reynolds, who will compete in the 2013 Warrior Games for five days in Colorado Springs beginning on May 11, just being able to go on long bike rides is remarkable. It's something that required 23 surgeries, so there was a good chance that his son wouldn't ever be able to see him on a bike let alone on long training rides to prepare for a Warrior cycling event.
As with hundreds of other armed forces who traipsed through Iraq during the American occupation, Reynolds' life changed when he stepped on an IED in 2004. The West Point grad, who was serving in Baghdad as an infantry reconnaissance platoon leader, nearly died. He spent the next two years healing at Walter Reed, undergoing the nearly two dozen operations to fix his leg, which had two severed arteries, and an arm, which had artery damage as well. Those had to be grafted, he said, and he also suffered nerve damage.
Nine months after his injury, Reynolds met his wife and three years later the two married. They're close to celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary next month and have three children Malachi, 4, Gabrielle, 2, and 3-month-old Genevieve.
Though his leg never fully recovered, when Reynolds was out of treatment, he began looking to adaptive sports to help find the athleticism and fitness level that he had before the injury. About a year and a half after being injured, he started swimming in pool therapy and a year later began cycling. He rode a hand cycle for about three years before transitioning to riding an upright bike.
"Since complimentary alternative medicine and alternative PT was not very built up around Medical Treatment Facilities during the early stages of the war, I relied heavily on non-profit organization such as Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA) who put me in touch with adaptive athletic instruction organizations," he said.
Reynolds has remained active in the community and serves as a Director for Team Red, White & Blue and a volunteer with the Walter Reed Bethesda cycling program for veterans and service members. He also participates in numerous Disabled Sports USA programs.
Last year, he said, he found out about the Warrior Games -- a place where veterans who are overcoming physical and behavioral injuries can compete in sports from archery to track and field. Reynolds, who now works as a consultant at Deloitte (which sponsors the games), volunteered last year in the wheelchair basketball event.
"Just seeing the (level) that people compete at the Games was really inspiring," he said. "The games were really competitive, but at the same time there was a huge level of camaraderie between opposing teams.” The Games proved to be a great place, he said, to swap information about resources to get adaptive athletic equipment and training and more.
So this year, after biking 10-15 hours a week (much of his training is riding his bike to and from work, 45 minutes each way) and swimming when he can, Reynolds was named to the U.S. Army team and is competing in the cycling and swimming events. He is competing as a "C2 level," or a competitor who competes with upper or lower limb impairments and moderate to severe neurological dysfunction.
Like many of the 200 other warriors who have competed in the past three games, he said it's just one more thing that helps him put his life back together again -- something that his workplace has noticed as well.
"We're proud of Will -- not just because he's one of our own, but because he demonstrates the personal discipline it takes to get up and engage in long term training," said Robin Lineberger, the chief executive officer of Deloitte's Federal Government Services practices. "As athletes move through the rehabilitation process -- which is really what the Warrior Games are about -- they improve physically and mentally. That investment has life changing impact on both the competitors and their families and those who are still in the healing process."
If this story sounds familiar, it's because it is.
Of the 2.5 million service men and women who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Operation New Dawn (OND), and/or Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, 1.56 million have since left active duty, according to a research by Linda Blimes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University. Of those 1.56 million, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has treated 866,181 for a variety of mental and physical injuries.
While the competition is fierce at the Warrior Games, its purpose is really to help foster a sense of community and get soldiers who were injured in the battlefield to get active again -- something that is often much more difficult than simply jumping on a bike again.
USOC Paralympics chief Charlie Huebner said his organization became involved with the Warrior Games, hoping to develop a program of athletes that go back out and develop and participate in physical activities for wounded veterans in their own communities.
"There's a significant amount of research that shows that physical activity lowers secondary medical conditions, raises self esteem and lowers stress level," he points out.
For Reynolds, he said being able to compete just gives soldiers back an important part of their lives again.
"You're taking soldiers who once had physical fitness as such a large part of their lives and were so proficient in it like many servicemen are and after they're wounded all of that is stripped away from them," Reynolds said. "(The Games gives them) all of that competitive nature back in their lives and a safe environment to do so in."