By the time veterans meet Guy Wilson, it may already be too late.
But Wilson, a recreational therapist at Temple’s Olin E. Teague Veteran’s Medical Center, is more than 20 years late for his own funeral.
Even when Wilson didn’t die in a Colorado hospital bed, doctors told him he’d never walk. They still tell him he doesn’t have any depth perception and is blind in one eye.
He can walk, can run, can dance and he can see just fine.
Too late, even as a doctor’s prognosis, is not an excuse. In fact, it’s the exact time to start playing like a child again.
“Everything you ever learned about life, you learned in kindergarten — you ever heard that statement — that’s true,” Wilson said. “Everything you did learn in kindergarten, you learned (by) playing games. How’d you learn the A-B-C’s, did you start singing a little song — that’s leisure. ... It’s what people do in their spare time is what really makes their entire (life).”
While activities such as archery, croquet, ladder golf, volleyball, washers and zendoodle are games, they are also effective ways to help wounded soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical impairments begin the long road to recovery down a new path to a new life.
Introducing soldiers to these activities is the mission of the new military adaptive reconditioning sports program at Fort Hood.
“If you have somebody that picks up a marble and uses it as fine motor skills, if they’ve got some problems with fine motor skills and stuff like that, eye-hand coordination, this is great,” said Wilson’s wife, Susan, the Fort Hood adaptive reconditioning program site coordinator. “You can work holistically on the body, that’s the great thing about recreation therapy and/or this adaptive reconditioning program.”
“That’s the real issue of what we’re getting out there is to work through those to give you some skill sets that can help you get back out there and kind of have that normal life again,” she said. “It’s a new normal, but at least it’s different and they’re learning through that.”
The program started to take its current shape in February, when Susan Wilson, a recreational therapist who previously worked with Veterans Affairs and active-duty military personnel, came aboard.
Wilson and 1st Lt. Kheela Davis, commander of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade, and adaptive reconditioning officer in charge, have already added loads of activities to the program’s arsenal, many of which were on display Friday at its organizational day at the Sportsmen’s Center.
“It’s a fun day because we believe anything in life has to be fun. If it’s fun, then you’ll get more participation,” Davis said. “We try to open up the area for soldiers to see that not only can they have fun at home, but they can have fun at work, as well, because this is a working environment for them. A lot of the soldiers aren’t able to go out there and run a 10-mile track, but they can come out here and play horseshoes or washers and still have fun.”
Davis, who’s been with the brigade since September 2011, has already seen the reintegration program changing.
Soldiers in the brigade are required to complete five hours of adaptive reconditioning each week. Early on, that meant either participating in a sport or walking around a gym for an hour five days a week, in addition to attending doctor’s appointments and the like. The program is all about offering soldiers new outlets.
“That new life is that transition that all of us fear. We all fear change. So, going into that new life, we have to show them that there’s so many opportunities out there for them,” Davis said. “It’s not really about just sports, like we try to encompass everything — the physical, emotional, spiritual, career. We try to knock all the different domains that can help them be a better person.”
To see Guy Wilson interact at the organizational day, it would be hard to imagine the grizzled veteran with a gray ponytail lying in a Colorado hospital bed after falling about 50 feet off the side of a mountain in 1982.
He had multiple head injuries — an open head wound on his left side and a closed head wound on his right — and his parents were forced to rush to his bedside only to be faced with the decision to take their son off life-support.
“Probably did the meanest thing you could ever do to a mother and that’s have her decide to pull the machine,” said Wilson, who was medically retired from the Army in his 20s. “My parents made that decision because it didn’t look like I was going to have a life at all. They unplugged my machines. They went to a hotel and they came back the next morning and I was still kicking.
“My commander at the time said that’s because he’s so hard-headed, that I just didn’t want to die because nobody gave me orders to die, so I didn’t do it,” he added.
Wilson spent about a year in the hospital, part of which was spent tied to the bed because, in his mind, he had been captured by the Russians. His arms and legs had to be restrained, yet doctors told him he’d never walk and the wound on the right side of his head had affected the left side of his body to the point some questioned if he’d ever be able to use it.
But, through time, his condition improved. Wilson saw an old man doing coin tricks, like pulling quarters from his grandchildren’s ears, and picked up the hobby, which aided his recovery, especially to the left side of his body, and now serves as the foundation of his career path.
“You come in the Army, they don’t care about your brain, they use physical therapy, (physical training), they run you back and forth, push and pull-ups, get your body going. Wherever your body’s going, your mind will follow,” Wilson said. “Through leisure, we do it just the opposite. ... We’re going to get your mind engaged and your body will follow. This stuff works, it works great, I’m living proof.”
The organizational day featured activities ranging from old and new backyard favorites like ladder golf, horseshoes and volleyball, to games that soldiers can take home and teach their families like the dominoes-based game chickenfoot and strategy games like board game mancala and dice game farkel.
And, Davis and Susan Wilson want to keep adding to what they can offer by utilizing the surrounding communities.
“Partnering up would be great for us to be able to get them in the community because when they leave here, if they don’t know resources in the community, then they just sit home,” Wilson said. “But, if they’re already connected through this program, then it’s old-hat for them, they feel very comfortable going into that situation in the community.”
“Long-term, we want to tailor this program to every, single soldier. So when a soldier comes into the Warrior Transition Brigade, we know immediately this soldier wants to do kayaking, that’s going to be his therapy,” Davis said.
“It’s a challenge, however, we’re very resource-worthy, so we try to (tap) into all of our resources and that’s why we try to get the assistance of the community, as well,” she added. “When they do leave the military, we need them to know that the military isn’t always going to be this safety cushion. They need to go out to the community, as well, and try to get that assistance.”
After his accident, Wilson was told he could no longer physically do what he loved as a young man in his early 20s — fight. So Wilson retired, went home and sat in his rocking chair on the front porch. He said it took him two rocks to see that his life was incomplete.
He went out in search of jobs that the military said he couldn’t do. He worked as a security guard and a jailer before deciding he wanted to be a physical therapist and shortly thereafter changed his major to recreational therapy.
It was in college that he met Susan, and now the two are working with veterans, young and old, alike, in Central Texas — he in Temple and she at Fort Hood.
“I get them much too late. This is where you want to reach them because they’re fresh,” Guy Wilson said of the adaptive reconditioning program. “I get the guys in the VA; they’ve used up all their resources — their families they’ve used up, they’re divorced, they’ve become alcoholics, dope addicts, they made decisions. I get them when their life’s worn down and wore out. We take care of them, we get them on the right track. We put him them back in life. You catch these guys now, you can save their marriage, save their family,” he added. “They don’t got to lose their kids, they’ll keep their fortunes. They can become great, useful and fantastic members of society. It’s all through just playing a game.”