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Army veteran wins medal at wheelchair games

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

The one sport Kevin Coleman played when he was in high school in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., was basketball. He returned to Washington last month to catch a flight for a basketball tournament in Omaha, Neb. This time, he played in a wheelchair.

Coleman was one of hundreds of veterans participating July 25-29 in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. The games are the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world, and they were presented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Besides basketball, Coleman competed in air guns and weight lifting, and he won silver medals in the shot put, the discus and bowling. In 2006, when the Games were in Anchorage, Alaska, Coleman won medals in air guns, weight lifting and the shot put.

But winning medals is a secondary goal for Coleman, now 48, who suffered a spinal cord injury at a military camp early in his career.

“The fun times are cheering for the other guys,” he said before he left for the Games. “If my family wasn’t coming down (to visit me at Crow Creek), I’d be up in D.C. with them waiting for July 24th to fly out.”

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Coleman injured himself in 1980 while driving a tank when he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.

“Because I was young, it mended itself,” he said. “I was in the hospital for three weeks, and then I rehabbed for another about six months. It fixed itself, but it was always there.

“I had to take pain pills. I stopped sleeping on my bed and started sleeping on the floor, which was great, because the next morning I would feel great.”

But the injury never healed.

“I went to the VA hospital and told them something was wrong with my legs,” he said. “I’m waking up a night and my legs are locked up. I have no feeling in them. I would put my legs over my bed and let the blood flow back into them and then massage them just to get them to move. And this was going on for almost three years.”

Years later, in one of the most frightening incidents, Coleman lost feeling in his legs while driving his manual transmission car in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I had to maneuver it off the Washington Beltway to the side of road,” he said. “I called AAA to have them come pick up the car—but there isn’t anything wrong with the car. “The guy says, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Take me to the VA hospital.’ So he took me to the VA hospital.”

Coleman eventually suffered paralysis from the waist down in 2006. He underwent three surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He is no longer paralyzed, but if he tries to walk unassisted, he has to balance himself by placing his hands on walls or furniture. A wheelchair is a few feet from where he sits in his living room.

“My legs don’t lock up like they used to,” he said. “I’m mobile. But I should have never gotten to that point. In the military we do this thing called ‘preventive maintenance checks and services.’ In order to prevent it, you fix it prior to its breaking. My situation was degenerative. They already knew I was (prone) to have something else occur in me. All of those MRIs they took showed the deformity.”

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In a distinguished career, Coleman was awarded three Meritorious Service Medals. One of them was for his work with the 177th Armored Brigade as an enlisted adviser for the Armored Tank Force in Camp Shelby, Miss. Another was for his work as a platoon sergeant in leading “the best tank platoon” while stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. And he received an MSM for his work with the New Equipment Training Team at Fort Knox, Ky.

Coleman also was heavily involved in training soldiers how to use the M1A2 Abrams tank.

“When the M1A2 was being conceived,” he said, “there were five or six of us that were on the ground floor of it. We taught them how to survive on that tank from day one.

“That tank is built for one mission: to kill. And it is not discriminatory about whom it maims. That tank will take your arms off, your legs off, and you don’t have to fire one bullet. It will hurt you.

“That turret goes around in less than three seconds. If you’re in the turret and your arms and legs are somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, they’re going to still be there when the turret comes back around. And it happens.”

The wide-ranging military career was unforeseen when Coleman was a student at Mackin Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. The only sport he played was basketball, but he never made the varsity. And when son Kevin Jr. was born, Coleman enlisted in 1978 “to make sure he was squared away for the rest of his life.”

Coleman is proud to say his son went on to graduate from the University of Maryland.

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Coleman was stationed three times in West Germany. This was a time when America’s biggest threat was not from terrorists in the Middle East but from the Communist-dominated Soviet Union, which controlled East Germany.

“(We) had an active border mission that was intense every day,” Coleman said. “It was what the United States was focused on. The Berlin Wall was still up. We got alerted to go to the border, and you never knew if it was real, play or what.”

After that tour of duty, he became a drill instructor at Fort Knox.

“I went back to the same unit that trained me,” he said. “The same unit I came out of as a private I went back to as a drill instructor. I took my old platoon sergeant’s office.”

He continued to learn about new weapons. He was sent to Lima, Ohio, to learn about the M1A2 being developed and later became an instructor at Fort Knox.

“The M1A2 is the most lethal thing that rides on the ground today,” Coleman proudly states. “It can shoot a gnat off a cat at 3 miles. The best thing about it is you can target two or three vehicles at one time with it. It’s just like Star Wars, only it’s better—and it’s real.”

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Coleman received many commendations during his military career, but one of those commendations reveals a lot about Coleman.

During the first Iraq War, Coleman underwent surgery for the lingering back injury and rehabilitated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While there, he was given a new assignment. Because of what the Army called a “severe personnel shortage” in the Family Housing Branch, he became the housing director at Glen Haven.

As director from Sept. 1, 1990, to April 30, 1991, the backlog of quarters awaiting return to service was reduced by nearly one-third. He revised key-control procedures after two others had failed in the attempt. And although he had no formal training for the job, the Army noted Coleman educated himself about the responsibilities with “initiative, sound judgment and self-determination.”

For “displaying great skill and initiative in ensuring that the family quarters were properly maintained,” he received a commendation for exceptionally meritorious service.

“They gave it me,” Coleman said, “because (my work) made a difference in those soldiers’ lives. The post commander came down and presented that to me. That’s not usual.”

After rehabilitating from the surgery, and with his enlistment up, Coleman wanted to retire from the military, but he was talked into re-enlisting. One of the officers said Coleman’s knowledge about tanks was too valuable.

“You’re going to give that knowledge to somebody else,” Coleman recalled his former commander saying. “I don’t care if you have to roll a wheelchair up there to do it. You can do it from a podium or whatever.”

In May 1991, Coleman re-enlisted. He went on to complete 20 years of service.

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Coleman had a successful Games last month, with second-place finishes in bowling, the shot put and the discus.

“I threw the discus in practice farther than I did in the competition,” Coleman said. Competing in the Class V open division, he threw the discus 15.80 meters.

In the shot put, he placed second without any practice throws. He was second in the open division in ramp bowling, finishing the event quicker than anyone else.

Coleman also competed in basketball, air guns and weight lifting.

In weight lifting, he missed a medal by 5 pounds.

“I couldn’t see the board,” he said, “so I didn’t know the guy (in third place) had finished his lifts and all he lifted was 205 pounds. I must have transposed the numbers, because I thought it was 250.”

So Coleman attempted to lift 252 pounds.

“I had (the bar) up,” he said, “but I couldn’t lock my elbows.”

His wife, Ivy, took the basketball games more seriously than Kevin, admitting she screamed at his teammates to pass the ball to him.

Coleman played two games on the same night—and the fun began late in the games when his team had no chance to win. Players on both teams began to foul by holding wheelchairs.

“They were slick,” he said about the opposition. One of his opponents knew how to draw fouls.

“He knew the ref was coming,” Coleman said, beginning to laugh, “so he rolled up next to me just so I could hold him. And the ref caught me. I didn’t even know he was behind me.”

Besides seeing him participate in the Games, Kevin wanted Ivy to see the other sports, especially wheelchair rugby.

“It was like bumper cars,” she said.

She was also impressed with the high quality of the competition.

“I would say the people who compete in air guns, archery and rugby do it year round,” she said. “One guy in archery was sponsored.”

One of the spinal-cord injured competitors in weight lifting—a 50-year-old whom Ivy dubbed “Lumberjack”—lifted 330 pounds on his first attempt. Said Kevin: “He threw (the bar) up like it was popcorn.”

Through conversations, Ivy also learned about the personal life of some of the competitors.

“I talked to about five guys who said their wives left them after a couple of years once they got injured or once they got paralyzed,” she said. “One guy I was talking to said his wife left him a month ago.

“I hope the VA has counseling for them, because that would cause depression. If I talked to five guys, there had to be more.”

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“I love the PVA and the Wheelchair Games,” Coleman said. “That’s the agency that takes care of us. If it wasn’t for them with the extra stuff that they do, we would be sitting here and we wouldn’t be able to get around and do a lot of the extra stuff that we get to do.”

Coleman has seen the opportunities for wheelchair athletes grow.

“When I first got my spinal cord injury,” he said, “they didn’t have a lot of things up at the spinal cord center in Virginia for you to pick and choose from. Now it is different. They have a lot of events. They do a lot of practices. And they have a team now, which is cool.”

Coleman has even taken up a new sport: tennis.

“I got a new racket,” he said, and he began to smile. “It is fun. And you can play (tennis) just as well as you play when you are running. I played against somebody walking—and had him smoking.”

Coleman also has played softball.

“We played for like two hours a couple of weeks ago in Richmond,” he said. “They have a field up there that is beautiful, just for wheelchairs. It is so pretty.”

He also praises the nurses and recreational staff at Richmond.

“The nurses that come down from Richmond are great,” he said. “The recreational staff has perfected the art of taking care of paralyzed veterans. They know exactly what to do to take care of paralyzed veterans. They are always looking for ways to improve what we do and how we do it. That is something we probably fail to tell them all the time.

They go three extra steps for us.”

Coleman is in a second marriage, and he and wife Ivy are raising Izaak, now 10 months old. (Coleman’s children from his first marriage included daughters Kristina, Kyvonne and Kyonna. Two are college graduates and another will be a high school senior.)

Whether Coleman will ever be able to take steps unaided remains to be seen.

“My legs are funny,” he said. “I don’t all the control back yet. But I can get around by touching and feeling (stationary objects) all day. But sometimes, the legs won’t do what you tell them. So, I’ll be close to somebody or using my cane or my walker—or I’m in the chair all the time.

“But I’m steadily trying to get all my strength back in my legs—which may or may not occur.”

MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at sports@brunswickbeacon.com.