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G.I.s challenge injuries with new athletic efforts

Running, cycling, and swimming give them new strength and purpose.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2008

All Out: Marine Iraq vet Derek McGinnis raced in Modesto, Calif., in May.

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Oceanside, Calif.

Surviving the bomb blast under his Humvee was a hard-won fight for Andy Robinson. But two years later, filling the life he fought so hard to have was turning out to be another challenge.

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"When I got hurt, three guys got killed," says Mr. Robinson, who was partially paralyzed in the June 2006 attack in western Iraq. He told himself, "You better shut up and better not complain.... No matter how bad the injury is, [you] got a second chance so enjoy it, live it."

Living, for Robinson, meant a long series of surgeries, physical therapy, and learning to use a wheelchair. It also meant deciding how to view his future. Was it over? Or just a beginning? A counterintelligence specialist used to high-intensity training and deployments, he desperately needed a mission.

"I've reached the end of the Internet," he'd periodically shout to his wife, Sara, through their Oceanside home as he tapped on a computer trying to pass the time. They were finally in a house, not a hospital room, and together for long stretches for the first time in their marriage of barely two years.

But as the months drifted by, the quarters began to feel a little too close. Just getting ready and out of the house took hours. His natural intensity and energy had nothing to pour itself into but frustration and tension.

"We had more arguments and tiffs because he had nothing to do," says Sara. "He needs a focus and a purpose and something to work on. He wants to help people."

Then Robinson came out to cheer for his marine buddy Greg Jones, called "Stitch," in a bike race in October 2007, and he was intrigued by the handcyclists zipping by. Stitch was already interested in helping injured athletes and he'd connected with Team Semper Fi, a group of injured marines who are endurance athletes, founded and funded by the nonprofit Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.

He passed along the name to Robinson, who soon was volunteering at the group's office on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. The organization also bought Robinson a handcycle, and in the first days of this new year, Robinson found a new beginning.

"It was like the hardest thing I've done since being injured. It was fun to be able to move fast," says Robinson, lighting up as he recounts the thrill of that first, hour-long ride with Stitch on the back roads of Camp Pendleton. "Before, to feel a breeze, I would just have to sit there and wait for a breeze."

Now, he makes his own slipstream.

Then the team needed a new manager, and Robinson didn't hesitate to take the job.

"It's made our lives so much better," says Sara. "He's doing his thing and I'm doing my thing. It's a lot more normal."

Now, he spends long days working on recruiting, finding events for the athletes to participate in, and arranging the logistics to get them there. He also works out on the gym equipment in his garage, where a racing handcycle hangs from the ceiling and a leisure handcycle is parked next to his car.

Team Semper Fi's use of sports as mental and emotional rehabilitation is part of a wider community of such groups, including the US Paralympic movement. A division of the US Olympic Committee, the Paralympic movement originated from a rehabilitation program for wounded World War II veterans, according to the group's website, and it now has a dedicated veterans' program, partnering with Team Semper Fi.

Navy Corpsman Derek McGinnis, a founding member of Team Semper Fi, lost part of a leg and sustained other injuries when a car bomb slammed into his vehicle in the Iraqi city of Fallujah during a major battle in November 2004.