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Altman: In these games, victory comes in helping commandos recover

Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2005, serves the ball during a game of seated volleyball at the MacDill Air Force Base gym. Del Toro is training with the U.S. Special Operations Command Warrior Care Program.
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2005, serves the ball during a game of seated volleyball at the MacDill Air Force Base gym. Del Toro is training with the U.S. Special Operations Command Warrior Care Program.
Published Mar. 20, 2017

TAMPA — It's noisy in the MacDill Air Force Base gymnasium as Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro sits on the floor, tosses a volleyball in the air and swats it over the net. On the other side, a group from U.S. Special Operations Command sits waiting to swat it back.

There are whoops and hollers and good-natured ribbing, because the only thing at stake is helping wounded, ill and injured commandos recover.

The seated volleyball game is part of the Military Adaptive Sports program, hosted at MacDill this month by the SOCom Warrior Care Program. The program put on a week-long training event last week in preparation for the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games.

Scheduled for June 30 to July 8 in Chicago, the games will include about 250 seriously wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans. They represent the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and Special Operations.

Teams include active-duty service members and veterans with upper-body, lower-body, and spinal cord injuries; traumatic brain injuries; visual impairment; serious illnesses; and post-traumatic stress. They will go head-to-head, engaging in friendly competition and the healing power of sports, in competition such as archery, cycling, sitting volleyball, shooting, swimming, wheelchair basketball, track and field.

"Doing stuff like this helps people recover," said Del Toro, 41, who knows a lot about the subject.

He was badly burned and lost his left hand in Afghanistan in 2005 when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. Del Toro, who helped maintain communications between ground forces and air assets, said his vehicle was targeted because the enemy knew the value of taking out those who make the communications link.

Del Toro has taken part in all seven Warrior Games, either competing or as a coach. A veteran of the games, he serves as a mentor to men and women who are just beginning the often-arduous healing process.

"I tell people to keep an open mind," Del Toro said. "Have fun."

The adaptive sports program is designed to help in both physical and mental recovery processes and works to improve the overall health and welfare of wounded, ill, or injured Special Operations Forces.

It is part of the Warrior Care Program's commitment to support wounded, ill and injured warriors and their families by restoring life purpose and regaining normalcy and balance, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Lara Bollinger, a SOCom spokeswoman.

"This commitment stems from the Special Operations Forces ethos to leave no one behind," Bollinger said.

The effort is working, said Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, the Warrior Care Program director, pointing to the command's 73 percent retention rate for wounded, ill and injured troops.

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"That's a high retention rate," he said.

• • •

The Pentagon announced no new deaths during the past two weeks in support of its ongoing operations.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 32 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 29 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; and one death under Other Contingency Operations as part of the Global War on Terrorism.

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

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