For Army veteran Roosevelt “RJ” Anderson, a life-changing motorcycle accident in 2012 never shuttered his resolve to pursue a passion that drew him into the military in the first place.
“In special operations in the Army, we were trained to do a lot of shooting, so shooting was already at the top of the list of things I enjoyed doing,” RJ says. “Now, trapshooting allows me to be around other veterans with injuries and has opened up a whole new world for what I can do, instead of what I can’t.”
Four years after enlisting in the Army as a mechanical specialist, RJ was invited to join a special operations team requiring intense training. On November 4, 2012, with the training behind him and his Army career ready to take off, RJ was riding his motorcycle near base when he crashed, breaking his C1, T4 and T5 vertebrae.
While in recovery, RJ was told by his doctor that he would never walk again, a prognosis he refused to accept. He immediately began searching for rehabilitation centers near his hometown of Chicago and chose the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). It was there that he progressed through his inpatient therapy and even requested bonus hours of therapy, determined to prove that doctor’s prognosis wrong.
Once discharged, RJ regained some strength in his arms, hands and legs and started a protocol on a Lokomat, a robotic walking therapy that helps the body practice taking steps. That, combined with hydrotherapy in the pool, has enabled him to walk using a walker for up to one hour.
Just months after getting into his wheelchair, RJ’s Special Operations Command advocate signed him up for the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, Fla., where he met Fabio Villarroel and Andy McDonald of the Paralyzed Veterans of America sports program.
“Being newly injured around the time of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, it helped my morale a lot to be around all of those soldiers and veterans,” RJ says. “Competing really lit a fire under me that it wasn’t the end of the world being injured and that I was still able to compete.”
RJ has since tried other sports, including wheelchair basketball, handcycling, sailing, and track and field, all of which have helped him build confidence as he watches his fellow disabled veterans accomplish amazing feats and simply enjoy their lives.
Trapshooting remains his greatest passion, so much that he eventually hopes he can make it less of a hobby and more of a competitive, professional sport. He hopes to use the upcoming trapshoot season as a measure of how his skills stack up in advance of the Paralympics. He also hopes to be a regular competitor in the annual Wheelchair Games.
“The Wheelchair Games were the first thing that really got me going,” RJ says. “I hope to do it every year in the future, not only to compete but also for the camaraderie.”
Read more about veterans participating in adaptive sports
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.