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Tampa is pulling out all stops for the Warrior Games

Retired Lt. Jason Roberts prepares to throw the ball during the 2019 Navy wheelchair rugby trials at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., March 20, 2019. Navy Wounded Warrior-Safe Harbor and NAS North Island are hosting the Navy Trials, in which athletes will qualify in 13 adaptive sports: sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis, rowing, cycling, wheelchair basketball, golf, swimming, wheelchair rugby, powerlifting, shooting, archery, track and field. [U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan A. Colon]
Published Jun. 22

TAMPA — They come with prosthetic limbs specially designed for racing. They come with tricked-out wheelchairs, ready to push and shove opponents in a Mad Max-esque game of rugby. They come with resiliency to Tampa, what some call the ideal host city for the 2019 Department of Defense's Warrior Games.

From June 21 through June 30, more than 300 wounded warriors from across military branches and international waters will convene in Tampa Bay to compete in a Paralympic-style competition featuring 14 different sports, including swimming, power-lifting, cycling and golf.

Now in its ninth year, the Warrior Games were designed to help wounded, ill and injured veterans and active military service members recover and rehabilitate through adaptive sports. Military branches take turns hosting the games. This year, U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base is taking up the mantle.

READ MORE: 2019 Warrior Games schedule

This is only the second time the games won't be held on a military base, said Col. Cary Harbaugh, director of the U.S. Special Operations Command Warrior Care Program and director of this year's games. In 2017 the Navy hosted the games in Chicago, which Harbaugh said saw some success in drawing a broader group of spectators.

Even before the games open, Tampa has set a high bar for future host cities.

The city waived convention center rental costs and many local sponsors followed suit, making this year's Warrior Games the most affordable ever, Harbaugh said. Every volunteer slot was filled at least two weeks prior to organizers' deadlines.

"The city of Tampa has pulled out all the stops," Harbaugh said.

The graciousness is not unexpected.

Hillsborough County has the largest veteran population in Florida, with 94,842 veterans living here, according to a U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs report. Pinellas County has 84,097 veterans.

Multiple local businesses offer discounts and promotions for those who served and are serving. Locals come out to pay respects to warriors laid to rest. MacDill is one of the region's economic engines, with close ties to local colleges and universities. Defense industry conferences and conventions regularly choose Tampa Bay for their events.

READ MORE: Jon Stewart on Tampa's Warrior Games, Gasparilla and whether he'd ever do TV again

Just last month the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference drew 13,000 attendees to the Tampa Convention Center, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, which promotes the area as a tourist destination.

"I've never seen a city embrace our heroes more than Tampa Bay and Hillsborough," said Corrada, who estimates the games will have a $5 million economic impact on the area with about 8,300 to 8,500 booked hotel nights.

In return, said Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, who served on the games' host committee, the least Tampa can do is show up to root for the athletes on their big day.

Viera and Harbaugh note that as the rules of warfare have changed, there's been a greater need for competitions like the Warrior Games.

For the last 18 years an entire generation of young men and women have grown up with war, with those that enlist facing longer and often more intense deployments, Viera said.

"If you signed the dotted line after September 11, you knew you would likely be in combat," he said.

These service men and women often return with traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions they must learn to live with.

Adaptive sports, which has long served as a form of physical therapy for veterans, has increasingly become a means to help wounded warriors manage their new circumstances, said James Herrera, physical health and wellness director for the Jacksonville-based nonprofit, Wounded Warrior Project.

Every veteran, when transitioning out of service, loses something, Herrera said. There's no career path, he said, that could parallel the sense of purpose and the camaraderie experienced in the military.

Competitive team sports — especially those organized by military officials, fellow veterans and, in the case of the Warrior Games, the Department of Defense — offer the closest experience to the confidence and connection found in military service, Herrera said.

The Wounded Warrior Project has even found that basic, regular exercise can have lasting psychological benefits to veterans in recovery.

The psychological and emotional toll modern deployment and training can take on servicemen and women is just as important to recognize as physical ailments, said active duty Navy Commander Clay Pendergrass, who suffered nerve damage in his legs after a spinal infection last year.

As captain of this year's Special Operations Command Warrior Games team, Pendergrass hopes the general public takes this holistic perspective into account.

"The physical injury is just the tip of the iceberg,'' Pendergrass said.

Thanks to social media, where videos of internationally renowned adaptive sports athletes can go viral, competitions like the Warrior Games are gaining traction among a more general audience. It's an audience Col. Harbaugh of Special Operations Command hopes will come out to the games in full force.

In addition to cheering on the various teams and individual competitors, Harbaugh hopes attendees will take a moment to meet the athletes during breaks and learn their stories.

"You will find it will improve your life," he said.

The Warrior Games will kick off with an opening ceremony Saturday, June 22 featuring comedian Jon Stewart as emcee and country star Hunter Hayes as the musical guest. Tickets for the kick off can be purchased for $15 on Ticketmaster. All sporting events are free and open to the public.

Contact Ileana Najarro at inajarro@tampabay.com. Follow @IleanaNajarro

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