Valor Games unite wounded warriors

May. 21, 2014 @ 05:13 PM

Tears welled up in Brenda Trussler’s eyes Wednesday when she talked about what her hero, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, had done.

Coach K stood before wounded veterans at Cameron Indoor Stadium to thank them for their service and introduce the Valor Games -- a series of competitive sporting events to bring the nation’s warriors together.

Trussler will never forget what happened next.

“He shook my hand, hugged me and signed my shirt!” the U.S. Navy veteran and Granville County resident said in a voice choked with emotion. “That was better than a gold medal!”

Trussler, 55, won a silver medal Wednesday for lifting a 100-pound barbell -- no small feat for someone who was expected to be a vegetable after a wreck left her with a severe brain injury. She fought back, and today is home but still missing the service.

“Once a soldier, always a soldier,” Trussler said. “It’s an awesome feeling being here at these games. We all understand each other. This makes me feel like I belong in the world.”

Outside Cameron, U.S. Army veteran James Fletcher of Alamance County was having a good day competing in archery.

Fletcher served 22 years in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. A shrapnel wound cut off his thumb, which was reattached. He also suffered brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and is getting help at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham.

He said archery is therapeutic.

“It helps me to get my thoughts where they should be,” he said. “It gets your mind off combat. You focus on the wind and trees and arrows.”

Fletcher said the Valor Games have boosted his morale by putting him in touch with other veterans who understand what he’s going through.

Also at the games was 36-year-old Army veteran Rafael Rodriguez of Cary, who has been deployed six times -- to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from IED blasts, and is dealing with PTSD from repeated deployments and seeing friends wounded in battle

Rodriguez, who visits a therapist at the Durham VA, once had trouble making an appointment at the VA for severe pain, forcing him to visit an emergency room. Except for that, he said, his care has been good.

Wednesday’s games were like medicine for Rodriguez.

“I’ve met a lot of like-minded people with the same symptoms as mine,” he said. “There’s nothing more isolating than mental illness, but here, we’re more likely to open up and share stories.”

Audrey May of Wilson was having fun at the games, helping her volleyball team win a bronze medal and competing in weightlifting and archery.

May, a 47-year-old Air Force veteran who served in Desert Storm, lost her right leg in the service. She’s proud of her new, computerized prosthetic leg called the Power Knee.

“It’s heavy, but if you let it do the work, you don’t notice the weight,” she said.

May, who plays golf regularly, attends a support group each week at the Durham VA and receives other treatment there.

“I get excellent treatment with no long waits,” she said.

The three-day Valor Games, also held Tuesday at the Dean Smith Center at UNC and today at Lake Crabtree in Morrisville, are sponsored by the Durham-based nonprofit Bridge II Sports.

Ashley Thomas, executive director, said the games are designed to give veterans “hope that they can find life again.”

“Once injury happens, the world changes,” she said. “The truth is that, as much as our society wants to be supportive, there’s often ignorance. It’s not that people are trying to be mean; they just don’t understand. When you start life again with a different body, it’s often hard, so you shut down. The games help people to find the courage to try again.”