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  1. Hillsborough

Land O' Lakes veteran finds new purpose in adaptive sports

SYDNEY - Master Sgt. George Vera, center, of Land ‘O Lakes, shakes hands with an athlete from the Netherlands after team U.S. won the Gold medal game 29-17, Oct. 27. Defense Department photo by Senior Airman Jose Gonzalez.
Published Nov. 6, 2018

On a late Friday evening in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul, the last thing on George Vera's mind was meeting royalty.

But the events of that day, and the aftermath, put Vera on a path to meet Prince Harry, the culmination of an inspirational story about recovering from the wounds of war.

It was late Aug. 7, 2015. Members of the Taliban attacked Camp Integrity, the U.S. Special Operations Forces headquarters near the Kabul airport. Vera, who now lives in Land O' Lakes, was a member of the 7th Special Forces Group, and assigned to a quick reaction force to respond to the attack, which took the life of his best friend, Army 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna.

Risking his own life, Vera helped pull troops out of the line of fire after the Taliban attacked the camp with an explosives-laden vehicle. In the ensuing battle, he said he killed at least five insurgents.

After 30 minutes into the battle, Vera was shot four times. He survived, but was paralyzed from the stomach down.

For a guy who was used to being an active, robust Green Beret, the injury proved devastating. And the recovery, which brought him to the Tampa area to recuperate at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, was challenging.

Not just for him, but for his wife, Angela M. Vera, and daughter, Angela I. Vera.

Vera went through numerous surgeries. There were down days. But in January, he made a decision that would change his life for the better.

"I decided I wanted to try out for the Warrior Games," said Vera. The Defense Department's adaptive sports competition helps participants regain a sense of normalcy and teamwork often found missing after being wounded, ill or injured.

"My big thing is that I always liked the team concept," said Vera, 41. "I knew for me, I wasn't going to be a Special Forces guy anymore, but adaptive sports gave me that team feeling and allowed me to start getting to normality."

Vera picked up adaptive sports fairly quickly, making both the U.S. Special Operations Command's Warrior Games team as well as a spot on the U.S. entry to the Invictus Games, created in 2013 by England's Prince Harry after he witnessed the inspiration that is the Warrior Games.

Vera's glidepath to adaptive sports glory may have been short, but it wasn't easy.

"I didn't feel better," he said. "It was rough. I woke up sore all the time, but as time passed, it got better and I could do more things."

As if his own personal goal wasn't enough, Vera said he was additionally motivated by his daughter, Angela.

"It is inspirational when you have an 11-year-old daughter who won't let you lay around in bed all day," said Vera.

During the Warrior Games, held over the summer in Colorado Springs and heading to Tampa next year, Vera won gold medals in shotput and discus and earned two bronze medals in cycling.

And on Oct. 27, he was part of the U.S. wheelchair basketball team that won the gold medal at the Invictus Games, held in Sydney, Australia.

Achievement aside, it was a trip of a lifetime for Vera, and his wife and daughter, both named Angela.

"It was on our bucket list," he said.

Meeting a prince was not, but that happened as well.

"It was good to compete and win the gold medal," he said. "Prince Harry and his wife presented us with the medals. It was pretty neat."

Topping that may be tough, but Vera is not done with adaptive sports. Not only will he try to compete in both the Warrior Games and the Invictus Games next year, but as an active duty soldier, he has been assigned to a planning cell for the 2019 Warrior Games, which are coming to Tampa from June 21 to June 30 and will be hosted by SOCom.

Vera has another goal on his bucket list.

"I would like to try out for the U.S. National Paralympic Team," he said. "But I am a little older, so we'll see how it goes."

•••

The Pentagon announced no new U.S. troop deaths last week.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 54 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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