Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Injured Marines To Compete In Marine Corp Trials

Injured Marines To Compete In Marine Corp Trials
GuestsPhil Bryant, Wounded Warrior Battalion West Staff Sgt. Anthony Rios

ST. JOHN: The war that is drawing to a close for U.S. marines in Afghanistan has left in its wake thousands of men and women who have lost limbs, service members whose wounds may heal but who will never be made whole again. Adjusting to life is a physical and a mental adjustment. And for some Marines, the Warrior Games are a powerful part of that adjustment. The third annual Marine Corps Trials for wounded, ill, and injured troops start tomorrow on Camp Pendleton, and they run for a week. And we have today two marines to talk about what competing in the games means for those who've come back from combat with wounds that are hard to heal. Coach Phil Bryant, thanks so much for joining us. BRYANT: Thanks for having us. ST. JOHN: And also Staff Sergeant Anthony Rios, who's been in the Corps for 16 years. Thanks for joining us. RIOS: It's good to be here. ST. JOHN: So Anthony, let's start with you. You have been in the Corps for 16 years. Where did you serve? RIOS: In the beginning, I served in Okinawa, I was there for a year while I was a young Marine. Eventually that would evolve into the war. I did three tours in Iraq, and the last in Afghanistan in 2010. ST. JOHN: How did you get the injuries you're dealing with today? RIOS: During a patrol, we were caught in an open field in an ambush, and an RPG was fired at me. It hit me, my left limb, and broke my femur. ST. JOHN: And so now what you are dealing with? RIOS: The symptoms that I -- that I'm working on is posttraumatic stress, I have a little TBI, traumatic brain injury. A lot of the stuff didn't register immediately. As an alpha male you think you're going to get right back on the saddle. And I started going through blackouts, lack of sleep, and eventually it'll catch up to you. ST. JOHN: I notice you brought in your service dog. RIOS: I did. His name is Bugsie. ST. JOHN: And he's going to be real quiet down there. RIOS: Absolutely. He's a really good dog. ST. JOHN: Okay. We'll come back to you, but Phil, you're a shooting coach. Tell us more about the importance of what's happening on Camp Pendleton this weekend. BRYANT: Yes, this is the third annual Trials. And bring 300 marines, active and former veterans that are part of these trials. And it gives them an opportunity to number sports and try to make that top 50 for the Warrior Games to represent the Marine Corps to go against the Army, Navy, and Air Force. ST. JOHN: What are some of the things people are competing in? BRYANT: Shooting, archery, volleyball, seated basketball, and swimming. RIOS: I'll be in three events. My first event will be volleyball, shooting, and the track and field disk throw. ST. JOHN: Disk throw. Okay. Talk to us about what was the most difficult thing about competing in these games? What did you have to overcome? RIOS: Actually a little bit of confidence, I would say. You're kind of taken down a peg being hurt, when you come to the realization that you can't perform the way you used to. Being at the Wounded Warrior Battalion built that confidence to where I'm at today in the Warrior Games. Last year, I didn't compete. I just thought how am I going to be competitive? ST. JOHN: Last year you didn't compete. This is the third year. RIOS: Correct. ST. JOHN: What was it about this year that made you decide to jump in? RIOS: I saw the Marines come back from the warrior trials, and just talking about Hearing the hype, and we did little internal competitions with each other. Shooting, some sort of biathlon, rowing swimming, and was very competitive in the sports. And that confidence built up to where I am today. ST. JOHN: How much is it growing then, coach? BRYANT: Yes, the health and care center opened on Camp Pendleton just late last year. So the programs are just getting started. And it's unlimited. They practice 3-5 hours a week on their sport, and that's just one sport. They may compete in 4-5. ST. JOHN: So this goes on all year? BRYANT: All year-round, yes. ST. JOHN: This is only the third year. BRYANT: Yes, this is a try-out for that Marine Corps team that's coming up for the games. RIOS: And it doesn't only get us ready for the game, but it shifts our thought process. We were trained to do a specific job in the Marine Corps. And that's all we knew up until the point where you get injured and now you can't do this anymore. And this shifted my thought process in a way where I can do other things I never really thought I'd be that good at, like the disk throw. ST. JOHN: Okay. So as much as anything, it's like reconnecting with what you can do and things that really seemed impossible what you were in the thick of it. Were you in hospital for a long time and sort of out of action? How long did it take before you could get back on your feet? RIOS: I was off my feet close to six months ST. JOHN: A long time. RIOS: And even then I worked ways to get up and fall on my face, and get back up and fall on my face. ST. JOHN: What were some of the things you used to do that have been the hardest to let go of? RIOS: Well, I rode motorcycles, dirt bikes. I jumped out of airplanes, propelled off roofs. ST. JOHN: Yeah. RIOS: I was a really fast-acting kind of guy, very athletic, very extreme, to a sense. And when I got on a dirt bike, my leg hurt so bad, and they said okay no more jumping out of airplanes to you. It just put a stop on everything. And that was tough. It was tough for me to say I worked to this point, not only in my life but in my career, which are kind of the same when you're in the military. And now you can't do it anymore. ST. JOHN: Okay. So you felt like you couldn't do it anymore. But then what was it that sort of turned it around for you? RIOS: Seeing other marines. Actually the groups is what turned this whole thing around my thought process, and my physical process, listening to their stories. I did a lot of listening. I like to do a lot of listening when I don't understand the problem, and listening to every one of their different stories and how they overcame, and trying to speak on their behalf actually helped me see that kind of thing in myself. ST. JOHN: So was there ever a point where you thought may be I can't be a marine anymore? RIOS: Yeah. As soon as they told me that -- they came up and said sit down, we're going to have to tell you, you're not going to be able to do this job anymore. We'll keep you in, if you want to retire as some sort of administrative job, we'll train you to go through that. But it's just not my personality. ST. JOHN: What was the name of your job prior? RIOS: 0861, forward observer. ST. JOHN: I guess that covers a lot more than it sounds like. So what do you see yourself being able to do that will be fulfilling in the Marine Corps now? RIOS: Well, I'm going to be retiring from the Marine Corps now. ST. JOHN: Oh, you are. RIOS: But what it did is shifting that thought process, I want to be a clinical psychologist now. And I'm going to get my doctorate. I have the resources, the ability, and now I have the drive. ST. JOHN: So these warrior games, it sounds like a very physical thing, doesn't it? RIOS: It is. ST. JOHN: And watching it, it really is amazing. I went to it last year. And I just remember knowing so impressed. But what you're talking about is more of an inner thing. RIOS: That's where it starts. Until you find that drive, you're not going to get up at 5:00 in the morning. You're not going to go through three or four events. You don't have the drive to. But that's what we're there for. And of the one who is do stay in now have this mentality. Marines who have been in for a long time, especially people like me and see someone hurt, we can't relate. We have no idea what's going on. Marines don't get hurt! You go down for a few minutes and you get right back up. And seeing the process that we go through now helps me to see that in a different light and teach others to see it. It's going to be a little while before we're actually up to speed with this. ST. JOHN: The wounded warrior battalion is quite a new thing, isn't it? There are a lot of folk coming back from combat who have much worse injuries than in prior wars; isn't that right? How many people are we talking about who are wounded in the battalion and participating in the games? BRYANT: In the games, you have about 300 athletes, 200 active duty, and then prior service. So everyone from Iraq all the way back to Vietnam veterans competing in these games. And our allies with us also here at the Marine Corps Trials. At the battalion, the Battalion West, there's 300 Marines there, including the staff. ST. JOHN: Okay. So this means there's a huge cadre of folks who are really dealing with a lot. Does that help that you're really not alone and that there's so many people who have different things they have to adjust to? RIOS: RIOS: Well, I've personalized this. Not to make it a big event, initially you don't want to relate to these kind of people. When I was in the hospital, I'd seen double amputees. And when I see them rolling around in the wheel hairs and congregating, in my mind that's not me. Like I said, it's a real tough process that you go through. But once it clicks and you start to get caught up in the wheels of recovery, it's almost like you turn the lights on in your mind. And when you do that, you're able to shine on other people. ST. JOHN: Do you feel that in some ways if you hadn't had this injury you might not have found some of the strength that you're finding now? Certainly your knolls seem to have changed RIOS: You know, it's a blessing. I always say to people who ask me, injured has helped me more than it's hurt me. And because of that light, because of just shifting my thought process so well, I was able to bring things out. I never thought I'd be a doctor in my life. Now I'm sitting there like that's all I'm going to be. ST. JOHN: Let me just ask you whether these games are open to the public. Because it's not that easy to get couldn't Camp Pendleton. But I think a lot of people would relate to what you're doing up there. BRYANT: Yes, the family members have access. I'm not sure about the gates being open to the public. You have to go through public, a fairs for something like that. But yes, we believe -- it should be a little more open so people can see what is happening. There's a lot of exposure on the Internet. A YouTube page, a Facebook page. So all the footage -- YouTube, you can see a lot of the action right there on the Internet. ST. JOHN: And there's people coming from other countries even, aren't there? Teams from Ireland and -- BRYANT: We have Canadians, Dutch, Colombians, Germans. Over 50 allied forces all competing with Australians. I hope I didn't offend anyone by leaving them out. ST. JOHN: Yes, so are they doing this in a lot of other countries? BRYANT: No, wounded warrior training is here, and the army is doing the same thing somewhere. The Navy, the Air Force is doing something so we can come together at Colorado Springs at the Olympic training center and compete against each other. ST. JOHN: Okay. Are you hoping to make it to Colorado Springs? RIOS: I will make it to Colorado Springs. ST. JOHN: You will! You should see the confidence that's glowing from Anthony Rios here as to what it is that you can accomplish in life. I think it's always true that a marine has a training that really gives them so much to move out to the world. But you are really an example of someone who's overcome a great deal and therefore perhaps has more to offer than someone else of your age who hasn't had that kind of a challenge to overcome. RIOS: And I believe in all this put together, making and listening to myself speak to people now and the fashion that I speak to them, this person would have told the Anthony Rios of three or four years ago, like who is this guy? I was going to be a marine for 30, 40 years until they kicked me out, kicking and screaming. And now I can see a bigger perspective. ST. JOHN: Good, okay. Well, I'd like to thank you so much both for coming in, and wish you the best of luck in the trials this week. RIOS: Thank you.

The war is drawing to a close for U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, but it has left in its wake thousands of men and women who have lost limbs. These are service members whose wounds may heal but who will never be made whole again. Adjusting to life is both a physical and a mental adjustment. For some Marines, the Warrior Games are a powerful part of that adjustment.

The 3rd Annual Marine Corps Trials for wounded, ill and injured troops start tomorrow on Camp Pendleton and run for a week, with opening ceremonies taking place today.

Over 300 Marines will compete in a seven-sport competition, reports, including archery, shooting, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, swimming, cycling, and track and field. as Representatives from other countries' militaries will also compete.

Corrected: June 15, 2024 at 4:48 AM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.