Wounded veterans rediscover slice of military life in obstacle course race
There's little in the civilian world that emulates the military experience.
It's also difficult to come across the camaraderie built during high-tense moments in combat.
Brotherhood can be sought out via other means — a college fraternity, perhaps — but the bond that's created between soldiers who've trudged together through the unspeakable horrors of war simply doesn't exist anywhere else except in that environment.
And although it seems like an atmosphere that one wouldn't want to repeat, many veterans find themselves searching for the platoon experience again post-military, if only to find again a sense of mission and purpose.
It's perhaps especially true for those who were permanently disabled because of combat. Suddenly they find themselves discharged in the midst of a promising military career, their mission seemingly dissolved without warning.
Such was the case for Jourdan Smith, 36, of Portland's Piedmont neighborhood, who was shot through the knee during a 2007 ambush in Iraq. The lower portion of his right leg was amputated two years later.
Despite his disability, and with a prosthetic leg in place, Smith participated in the 4.2-mile obstacle-style Portland Spartan Race with a group of about 10 on Saturday, orchestrated by the nonprofit Operation Enduring Warrior, a Virginia-based organization that helps wounded veterans connect and find these little glimpses of military life again.
The race — although its title aims at Portland — was held in Washougal, Wash., at the Washougal Motocross Park, about a 40-minute drive outside of the city.
Operation Enduring Warrior
Several veterans were in the Operation Enduring Warrior group at the event, including Kevin Pannell, of Sandy, who lost both his legs during a 2004 grenade ambush attack, also in Iraq.
A rocket-propelled grenade was responsible for the loss of Norbie Lara's arm, as well as brain damage and other injuries. He traveled to the event from California.
"The military, your platoon, your squad, the smaller you go down, the more tight-knit it is. You lose that when you get out of the military," Smith says. "Because everyone splits up over here, over there, and every which way. You get out, and you get a little bit of that every now and again. Especially with a group of guys like these."
The group would take on the obstacle-style Spartan Race together — and finish together — as they climbed walls, slid through mud pits and climbed up steep hills.
Hundreds of people ventured to the Washougal park for the event, some of whom seek out similar races all over the country. Families ran together, boyfriends and girlfriends, those old and young.
The organization, Spartan Race Inc., holds the races all over the world, and the event itself has seemingly created its own subculture of people. But it served as a more specific outlet for those who were in the military.
"Particularly a Spartan Race ... this is a sort of military-style race because of the obstacles. You do those in the military as well, so it gives them a sense of being back in the military," says Jeff Farmer, program manager for Operation Enduring Warrior. "So to realize there can still be teamwork and camaraderie, it makes them feel a part of the organization again."
The Operation Enduring Warrior group, including Smith, gathered together ahead of the race at a vendor booth.
Several decided to wear gas masks and full military gear for two reasons: one, to conceal their identity, and two, the gas masks made breathing more difficult. The gear also existed as an obstacle in itself, so that they could relate to some of the difficulties amputees face on a daily basis.
'Just cut it off'
Smith experienced difficulties on the Spartan course specific to his disability. For instance, water obstacles were a nuisance when it seeped into the the cup at the top of his prosthetic leg, where the remaining leg locked into the mechanism. He'd have to take the contraption off and air it out.
Scaling a wall proved not terribly difficult, though, as he was able to use the prosthetic leg just as easily as an intact leg.
Also, everyone helped one another at every turn.
Lara, taking on the course in military gear and a gas mask in addition to having only one arm, completed obstacles alongside Smith, offering his remaining arm or shoulder for balance.
While the loss of his limb was painful and tumultuous, Lara says, "it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
"Before I got hit, I was a terrible person," he says. He explains the experience humbled him.
For Smith, the decision to stop the attempt to salvage the limb was easy. Joining the Army in 1999 shortly after high school, he was hurt in 2007 during an ambush in Dora, a neighborhood in Baghdad. The area became a hotbed of anti-Christian violence, controlled by Sunni Muslim extremists during the Iraq War.
"They baited us in — a vehicle got hit with an IED (improvised explosive device) and we showed up. They waited until we had 20 guys on the ground and opened up (fire) in three different directions," Smith says.
He attempted limb salvage for two years, when he became tired of so many surgeries and little result.
"I just got so tired of the surgeries, so I said just cut it off. (Doctors) said no — I said cut it off, or I'll do it myself," he says. His lower right leg below the knee was amputated on June 15, 2009.
"It was easy. I was so tired of the pain, the surgeries. I can't even count how many surgeries I've had," he says.
Smith was especially inspired when he observed other wounded veterans running again with prosthetic legs.
"I was watching guys come in missing both limbs, and they were running six, seven, eight months after their injuries, where I was one and a half to two years, and still barely walking," Smith says, complaining also of all the prescription drugs. "It just sucked."
Like a platoon
At the beginning of the race, the group marched to the starting line while onlookers clapped and cheered. After a brief announcement, the Spartan Race began at 11:30 a.m. Racers with intact limbs quickly passed by, while the Operation Enduring Warrior group fell behind, but adamantly stuck together and tackled each obstacle as they could, moving on until each person had attempted or finished.
This method would make them nearly last in the race, taking nearly seven hours to complete. However, the point for them wasn't winning. It was that slice of military life.
Nearing the halfway point of the race, the group was hitting exhaustion.
Coming up on a water and rope course, Smith showed initial hesitance about wading in. More water in his leg cup. But he pushed forward.
"Let's do it," Smith told the group, with a smile and hands on his hips. He and Lara slid down the mud into the water, while the group made jokes, poking fun at one another and laughing in their exhaustion.
At one point, Pannell lay on the ground laughing, squirting a packet of mustard into his mouth given to him by a kind racer passing by. (According to some racers, the condiment, containing acetic acid, helps relieve cramps from a deficiency in acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter that activates muscles.)
After several minutes, Smith, also laughing, encouraged Pannell in that aggressive-but-loving military way: "Get your ass up, let's go."
And, like a platoon, they kept going, together.
"Leaving the Army, it was hard, because the camaraderie, especially within your platoon, it's really tight," Smith says. "Most of these guys I just met in the last 24 hours, but I feel like I could call 'em up and they'd listen to me whine and cry anytime, now."