It was Paralyzed Veterans of America’s sports program that disabled Air Force veteran Debra Freed believes saved her life.
In 1981, after a factory job was not providing the opportunities she wanted, Debra left to enlist in the Air Force. After undergoing training to become a jet engine mechanic, Debra advocated to be stationed overseas, leading to a 30-month assignment in Okinawa, Japan. It was there in November 1982 that she suffered an L2 fracture after falling from a wall. Just nine months later, in 1983, she suffered a second fall that required surgery.
In 1985, following two back surgeries, Debra left the Air Force to go back to factory work, but following a third back surgery, she found most jobs too physically demanding on her back. In 1991, she returned to college to earn a degree in library science, and in 2001, after being unemployed for two years, Debra met a spinal cord injury (SCI) social worker who set in motion a series of medical tests that would enable Debra to be seen in the SCI clinic.
“It was in radiology that I discovered a flyer for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in St. Louis in 2004,” Debra says. “We already were in debt up to our eyebrows, but I begged my partner to say yes we could go.”
With her back injury requiring a wheelchair almost full-time, Debra applied for membership with Paralyzed Veterans of America in hopes of attending the 2004 games. “I signed up for almost every event I could think of,” Debra says. “It was very humbling and a great experience to participate with people who were in the same boat I was. It’s true when I say that Paralyzed Veterans in many respects really did save my life.”
Debra has since attended the National Veterans Wheelchair Games seven times in the past 10 years, having competed in events including archery, air guns, bowling, field events and handcycling. In 2011, in the middle of treatment for breast cancer, Debra even mustered up the strength to attend the Games in Pittsburgh. “I did as much as I could do, but in the handcycle event, I did one three-mile lap and couldn’t do anymore,” she says. “I felt bad, but no one else made me feel bad. They all told me that there was no failure there.”
Debra’s also an active participant in Paralyzed Veterans of America’s bowling tournaments through the New England chapter bowling league. In 2013, she completed her first marathon on her handcycle and hopes to continue training to compete in more marathons in the future.
Debra’s hard work within the New England chapter also leaves a legacy to be proud of, having excelled from a volunteer to the executive director of the chapter in just nine years. One of her goals in this role is ensuring that the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to recognize that sports are an integral part of physical and mental health of disabled veterans.
But while Debra is a strong advocate for the New England Chapter’s robust sports program in helping with the recovery and overall well-being of disabled veterans, she stresses that the sports program does not stand on its own. It goes hand-in-hand with other valuable programs like research and advocacy, she says.
“The one thing I don’t want people to walk away thinking is that we are just a sports program,” Debra says. “My goal is to improve research, advocacy and legislation because without those, there are no sports programs. You can’t get veterans into the gym if there are only stairs, or into the bathroom or showers if there is a lip that they can’t get their chair over.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.