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Record-setting Paralympian Scott Winkler is 'sitting proud'

The man in the wheelchair is a soldier no more. At least, not in the conventional sense.

Scott Winkler ceased to be an active part of the military establishment the moment he fell off a truck in Iraq and landed on his back with a load of ammo on his chest and his body twisted grotesquely in the hot sand.

Everything he knew was now in doubt. His marriage. His career. My gosh, his life.

That was five years, and some surgeries, ago. The Scott Winkler sitting before you this Memorial Day has a wrecked body and a mended spirit. This Scott Winkler is a world-record holder in the shot put, and the first Iraq veteran to make the U.S. Paralympic team.

"I love my country. I'd die for my country as a soldier, now I want to win for my country as an athlete," Winkler said. "My goal in life is to inspire other people out there. When I put that uniform on, it's like I'm a soldier all over again. I'm standing proud."

Requisite pause.

"Or I'm sitting proud."

Just because you stop being a soldier doesn't mean you give up the fight.

The wheelchair, I suppose, is one giveaway. The haircut is another.

Around the back and sides, Wink­ler's blond hair is cut military short. But, on the top, is a rogue cowlick, allowed to grow recklessly long and protrude across his forehead.

It is the look of a man reconciling his past with his present. Just as his new career as a Paralympian is a nod to his past devotion to country and, at the same time, a realization his world has irrevocably changed.

Not that any of this has come easily. You spend a lifetime in a military posture, it is heartbreaking to realize one day that you will never again stand at attention.

For Winkler, 35, the realization came slowly. And painfully.

Having survived a year in Kuwait in the mid 1990s, Winkler was doing his second tour of duty in the Middle East in 2003. He had been in Iraq barely two months when he was instructed to make a delivery of ammunition in Tikrit during a particularly dicey time.

"It was a hot zone, we had to get in and get out," Winkler said. "We were in full battle rattle."

A soldier cut the bands holding the ammunition in place in the back of the truck, but he forgot to pull the bands out. When Winkler grabbed a 50-pound pack of ammunition to unload, his boot was hooked by one of the bands and he tumbled out the back of the truck. He managed to land on his back with the ammo safely on his chest and, for a brief moment, thought he had escaped injury.

That was before he looked down and saw that his lower torso had twisted 180 degrees, and his rear end was now in the front of his body.

"I couldn't feel nothing. I couldn't see down there," Winkler said. "They told me, 'Don't move.' I said, 'Why?' When they took the ammo off and I looked down, it was like 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen?' It's a shock. It was like, 'Am I dead? Am I alive? What am I going to do?' After that, everything broke loose. I don't remember much. I remember a lot of pain, and then I was flying places."

Remarkably, his early treatment gave Winkler some limited ability to walk again. Then doctors discovered lesions on his spine and, later, an infection became a problem. Wink­ler went in for further surgery and, when he awoke, learned he was now a paraplegic.

"There was about six months of depression. It takes a big toll on your life," Winkler said. "Finally I said, enough is enough. I had to get on with my life.

"Do I want to be depending on people or do I want to be independent? I'm a go-getter. I couldn't sit back and let life pass me by. I had to do something. I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. To this day, there are obstacles in front of me and I keep going through them."

About two years after getting out of the hospital, Winkler was invited to a military sports summit for the disabled in Colorado Springs. A sprinter and long jumper in high school in Pittsburgh, Winkler went through a series of tryouts in various Paralympic sports in Colorado. Hand cycling, basketball, volleyball, swimming, table tennis. It wasn't until he hit track and field events and threw the discus and shot that he caught the attention of officials.

By 2007, he was the best in the United States and was throwing the shot world-record distances. He is weeks away from the Olympic trials and will hopefully compete in China at the Paralympics after the Summer Games.

Winkler, now divorced, lives in Augusta, Ga., and commutes to Birmingham, Ala., where he trains several days a week. He also works with the Southeastern chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, organizing fishing trips on his boat for other soldiers in wheelchairs. Camping and bowling outings are also on the agenda.

"Growing up, we were all told not to stare at somebody who is disabled. Don't look at them, don't talk to them because they're different," Wink­ler said. "Well that's not true. We're human beings. We want to be just like everybody else. That's the awareness we're trying to get out.

"Everybody has ups and downs. You just try to hide the down days. I'm trying to inspire people. I'm trying to inspire them to get out and do new things in life."

On his wrist, Winkler wears a bracelet similar to Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong motto. Except Winkler's has a different message. "Gimpin' Ain't Easy," the bracelet reads.

"Gimpin' ain't easy," Winkler said. "But we all have to have a sense of humor. I am still alive."

Looking back, there have been plenty of opportunities for Winkler to question the misfortunes in his life. A war that may have been unnecessary. A soldier's mistake that led to Winkler's fall. Medical procedures that did not turn out as planned. Has any of it led Winkler to question his career as a soldier or some of the decisions made by the U.S. military?

"Not at all," he said. "To this day, if they called me up, if I could I would go back."

Record-setting Paralympian Scott Winkler is 'sitting proud' 05/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 9:20pm]
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