TAMPA — Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, had a court-side epiphany last July at the United Center in Chicago while watching the annual Department of Defense Warrior Games.
So impressed with what he saw and so confident in massive support from the Tampa Bay community, Thomas decided right then to try to bring the games here in 2019, according to Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, who was sitting next to him.
"He turned to me and said, ‘Can we do this?’ and I said, ‘Yes sir, we can. Why not?’?" recalled Harbaugh, who runs SOCom’s Warrior Care Coalition, an advocacy program designed to improve troops’ quality of life and mission readiness, and transition back to civilian life.
In December, the Pentagon awarded the games to SOCom, which has decided to stage them off-base next year to offer greater access to a community that already is showing tremendous interest. And now the real work of putting on a major sporting event that will bring some 300 athletes and about 1,200 family members here is under way.
The command has to find places to hold events such as wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball, shooting and archery, swimming and track and field. For bike races, Harbaugh envisions a route along somewhere like Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard.
To pull the whole thing off, SOCom will need at least 800 volunteers. And funding. And, of course, there are the entertainers for the opening night ceremony. Last year it was country musicians Kelly Clarkson and Blake Shelton.
"We anticipate someone of that ilk," said Harbaugh, adding he would like the bulk of activities to take place in the downtown Tampa area if possible, but with venues around the region to ensure a total Tampa Bay buy-in.
"There is a degree of nitty-gritty already ongoing," said Harbaugh, saying it is too early to comment on budget or crowd projections. "The nitty-gritty has to be there for things like securing venues. If we are using venues that are also used for other sporting activities, you need time to plan."
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Because of its secretive work, SOCom often operates in the shadows. But sometimes the quiet professionals are quiet due to old-fashioned bureaucracy.
Before SOCom went public about the Warrior Games, its planning committee had to coordinate with community leaders, the Pentagon and the Air Force team in charge of the 2018 games, among other stakeholders.
Meanwhile, a medically retired Marine sergeant who lost three limbs in Afghanistan and won six Gold Medals at the Chicago Warrior Games came back from the Windy City jazzed up and looking to bring the games here.
Mike Nicholson’s enthusiasm proved contagious, with Tampa City Council member Luis Viera shepherding a community-based effort to bring the games to Tampa, not knowing the command was already working behind the scenes to make it happen.
Together, they did what SOCom could not — spreading early awareness that the games were coming and giving the commandos a running start at the many approvals they will need from government entities and sporting venues.
"I am really happy how engaged people are," Nicholson said.
Their efforts have sparked a groundswell of support for the games, with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the Tampa City Council, the Hillsborough County Commission, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and other organizations pledging to help. Gov. Rick Scott also has offered assistance.
That early support is especially important since SOCom, working under strict Pentagon guidelines, can’t yet reach out for help. In addition, Harbaugh said he doesn’t want to upstage this year’s games.
"We want the 2018 games to succeed," he said.
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To help secure facilities and interact with the various permitting agencies and governmental bodies, SOCom will rely on the private, nonprofit Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
"Whenever they need assistance when it comes to hotel assignments, linking up venues and then relying on our expertise when it comes to special events, we will help," said the commission’s senior director, Jason Aughey.
Aughey likened working with SOCom "to our hosting effort in 2013 when we partnered with the local VA to host the National Veteran Wheelchair Games."
There already is buy-in from venues such as Amalie Arena, though with the Tampa Bay Lightning a perennial playoff contender, there could be complications.
"We would be honored to help with the Warrior Games in any way that we can, at Amalie Arena or perhaps the USF Sun Dome," said Bill Wickett, spokesman for Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment, the Jeff Vinik holding company that operates the arena and the Sun Dome. "This is a great event for Tampa Bay and the military members here and we’ll facilitate any way possible, keeping in mind the date obligations we must preserve for our primary tenants."
Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack said his organization "is thrilled" that SOCom will host the games.
The chamber’s military council has already been briefed by SOCom on what the event will look like and the kind of community support required, said Rohrlack, who said the chamber’s military council members will attend SOCom planning sessions for the games.
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The Warrior Games were established in 2010 as a way to enhance the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded warriors and to expose them to adaptive sports.
For its first four years, it was held at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s facility in Colorado Springs, before being hosted by the individual services. Last year, about 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans took part at the games, held in Chicago, representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, SOCom, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force.
This year, as in the past, SOCom will send about 40 athletes to the Warrior Games.
The team, Harbaugh said, represents a small fraction of the 13,000 commandos who have signed up to take part in Care Coalition activities designed to help them restore their abilities.
"These games allow us to showcase not just what our warriors have overcome, but what they will be living with for the rest of their lives,’’ Harbaugh said. "They are not wallowing in it. They are thriving."
Harbaugh recalled the case of medically retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Lindstrom, who was a Green Beret with the 10th Special Forces Group. Lindstrom recently left the Army after 15 years and several injuries, including traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder. He was badly hurt in Logar Province, Afghanistan, in 2012 when his armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
After Lindstrom won a gold medal in archery last year, his son ran up and jumped in his lap, Harbaugh said.
"He said to his little boy, ‘Now you know why your daddy works so hard at archery,’?" Harbaugh said. "He is now viewed as whole again in his family’s eyes through adaptive sports. That is the greatest impact."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 826-8888. Follow @haltman.