TAMPA — The military established special games for ill and injured troops and veterans in 2010, and the annual event drew crowds of up to 5,000 to the bases that hosted them — until this summer.
Moving the Department of Defense Warrior Games to public venues boosted attendance tenfold — and now local politicians, community leaders and one man who took part in the competition are working to bring them to Tampa.
U.S. Special Operations Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, has expressed interest in hosting the games here, said Laura Ochoa, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
The office of Defense Secretary James Mattis is coordinating with SOCom and the military services to explore options for the 2019 games and determine the host and venue, Ochoa said. SOCom, if chosen, would decide whether the games are on base or off, said Ochoa.
This year, the games were held in Chicago and more than 50,000 people attended the opening ceremony and events, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Gordy, a Warrior Games spokesman. The 2018 games, sponsored by the Air Force, will be held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Taking events off base created "more excitement and energy about the games," Gordy said. "Having them off base allows the public to come and participate and watch the games, whereas behind the gates it is much more difficult."
Current security measures limit the number of people who can drive onto MacDill and other military installations.
The Warrior Games were established in 2010 as a way to aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of ill and injured troops and veterans and to introduce them to adaptive sports. This year, about 265 took part, representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, SOCom, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force.
They competed in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
SOCom, which along with each individual military service fields a team for the games, deferred comment to the Pentagon. But there is already a groundswell of excitement.
After reading about the games in the Tampa Bay Times, Tampa City Council member Luis Viera on Thursday proposed that the council write a letter to the Pentagon requesting that the games be brought to Tampa. The motion passed 6-0.
Viera said he will write the letter and point out the strong relationship between MacDill and the Tampa community as well as the hundreds of thousands of veterans who live in the area.
He plans to enlist the assistance of other politicians in his efforts.
Topping Chicago would be a challenge.
Nearly half of this year's attendance came from the opening night ceremonies, which featured full-length performances by country musicians Kelly Clarkson and Blake Shelton, Gordy said.
Chicago, with a population of 9.5 million people, is the nation's third largest metropolitan area while the Tampa Bay metro area has about 2.8 million people.
Because of that, Ashley Bauman, spokeswoman for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, expressed doubt that Tampa could top Chicago's attendance.
"We would be honored to host the event, and what we lack in population we would make up in effort and heart," Bauman said.
Tampa offers many advantages as a host city for the Warrior Games.
MacDill Air Force Base is home to two of the military's most important commands, SOCom and U.S. Central Command. MacDill also hosts two Air Force wings, a major Marine command and dozens of other mission partners.
The Tampa Bay area is also home to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center and the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, two of the nation's busiest Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and one of the nation's busiest VA claims processing centers.
In addition, an estimated 200,000 veterans live in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, one of the largest such concentrations in the country.
A number of military-themed events are already headed to the region and state, said Steve Murray, spokesman for the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs. That includes the 2019 Congressional Medal of Honor Society conference in Tampa.
"We attract many national conferences due to our weather, hospitality and infrastructure to handle major conferences," he said.
Viera said there are many sites in Tampa that could host Warrior Games events.
"I do think that they will draw a great number of people, not only because of the competitive sportsmanship of the event but also what the event means," he said. "This game is a real opportunity for injured veterans to highlight the heart and remarkable spirit that led them to sign up in the military in the first place."
Mike Nicholson, who lost three limbs to a bomb blast in Afghanistan and won six gold medals in the 2016 Warrior Games, said he thinks Tampa could set an attendance record if the games are held off base.
"With us being such a military-friendly city, I could imagine that attendance increasing," he said.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.