Courage remains after service ends

Competition not 'about the medals'

Veterans Wheelchair Games

July 29, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

Ventura Catala was testing a newly designed parachute as part of his job in the Army in 1984 when the chute failed to open and he free-fell 1,000 feet before finally hitting the Mojave Desert sand on his back.

"They say you're supposed to black out in a situation like that," Catala, now 49, said. "But I didn't. I saw the fall all the way to the end. I saw everything."

The accident broke every bone in his body and left him with a spinal cord injury that has paralyzed him. He is unable to walk and has scarred lungs and a metabolism problem that has made him allergic to almost everything.

"They offered me a choice: life in a negative-pressure room or to take a chance in the world," he said. "At 25, I decided to take a chance. It's a challenge, but I like doing things for myself."

Catala and 600 other disabled veterans are showing just how remarkable and capable they are while competing in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb. The games began Friday and conclude today. The vets are competing in everything from track and field, basketball and weightlifting to archery and sled hockey.

"Like serving our nation, the games are not really about the medals," said Randy L. Pleva Sr., national president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "They're a mix of camaraderie, competition and courage."

The Department of Veteran Affairs stages five athletic events a year for disabled vets, including a sports clinic in San Diego that this year will showcase adaptive surfing and sailing for the first time.

"Most people would like to see [the disabled] in a closet and never have to look at us," said Catala, of Laurel, who is independent. "For me, these games prove we are still productive and capable, and every time we do what we do, we open another door. You have to look at the abilities of the person, not the disabilities.

"People who can walk look at people in wheelchairs and think we're made of glass. Think we're fragile. But just because we're perceived to be weak doesn't make it true. These games open the eyes of the public and educate them to our abilities."

Catala, who saw action in Granada and El Salvador, is one of four Maryland residents competing in Omaha.

Joining him are Vernon Taylor, 56, of Randallstown, an Army Vietnam veteran who was also injured in a parachute accident; Wayne Miller, 57, of Silver Spring, a Marine who was injured in combat in Vietnam; and Air Force veteran Arnold Beard, 60, who was injured by a gunshot.

Miller, who lost a leg when he was wounded, is the only one who is not a paraplegic.

Each of them has competed in multiple wheelchair competitions, and Catala, competing in his 11th games, said he has a "boatload" of medals. He competes in shot put, discus, archery, air guns and the 200-meter wheelchair race.

"I always medal, every year," he said. "And it's not because there isn't a lot of strong competition. In archery, for instance, I'm always finishing second to the United States archery wheelchair champion. But I don't mind because I know he's the best."

Catala, who after his injury earned a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland, hopes other veterans will take notice of the games.

"There are 600 disabled veterans participating in these games," he said. "But there are a whole lot more of them sitting around at home feeling sorry and beating themselves up. Maybe this will reach them and motivate them to come out and do something."

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