Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Soldier Sets Crosshairs on Warrior Games

By Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown
Army News Service

May 11, 2010 - Army Staff Sgt. Dean Isaacs and his wife, Leigh, know a lot about back pain.

The Fort Bragg, N.C., warrior transition battalion soldier had his fourth spinal surgery six months ago. His wife, who worked at the physical therapy office where he was being treated after his first surgery, had her spine completely fused when she was 16.

Isaacs and his wife won't let their injuries sideline them -- Isaacs is competing in the inaugural Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week.

The challenge of preparing for the Warrior Games is helping in his goal of becoming fit enough to return to regular duty, Isaacs said. During the games, he will compete in Olympic-style 10-meter air rifle shooting in both the prone and standing positions, and also will participate in sitting volleyball.

Just four months after his latest surgery, Isaacs heard about the Warrior Games at a company formation. He asked how to register, sent in his form, and soon was selected to be one of the Army's 100 representatives at the games. Isaacs said he doesn't know what the selection process was, but he's glad he was chosen.

"It's a true honor," he said. "Of all the wounded soldiers and servicemembers throughout the entire military, they only picked 200 people to compete in this, and 100 came from the Army. To be one of those 100 ... I'm shocked."

He didn't really know what air rifle shooting was, he acknowledged, until he was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., to train with the Army marksmanship unit.

"When I was first approached about this, and they said, 'air rifle shooting,' the first thing that came to my mind was shooting tin cans off a fencepost with a BB gun like I did when I was a kid," Isaacs said. When he learned that air rifle shooting was an Olympic sport, and harder than it looked, he added, he got nervous.

"That's when it hit me. That's when I thought, 'Hold on a minute here, can I actually measure up? Can I do this?'"

Air rifle shooting involves keeping a 12-pound rifle steady while aiming at a .02-inch diameter target from 10 meters away. Isaacs explained that with such a tiny bull's-eye, breathing and concentration are extremely important.

"One little muscle twitch can mean the difference between a 7 on the target and a 10 on the target," he said.

Isaacs travelled to Fort Benning for two week-long training sessions where he learned to hone his shooting skills. Isaacs also learned core-strengthening exercises, which he said not only help to keep his body still while shooting, but also have helped him to recover from his surgery.

"It's a science of shooting that you get into," he explained.

And, while Isaacs admitted he's still a little anxious about competing in the games, he's even more excited and looks forward to representing the Army.

"The excitement is to see how well we do against our peers. ... The Marines are going down," joked Isaacs, whose brother is a Marine.

Although air rifle shooting is an individual event, Isaacs said, he and the other Army competitors became a team during their training.

It still is painful sometimes just to get out of bed in the morning, Isaacs said, but with more than 15 years of active service, he hopes to stay in the Army for at least 20. Originally a loadmaster in the Navy, and later an artilleryman in the Army, Isaacs said the active-duty lifestyle hasn't been easy on his body.

The Clarion, Pa., native said he first noticed there was something wrong with his back 11 years ago, when he occasionally felt numbness and tingling. He initially dismissed his discomfort. But when he eventually visited a doctor, the doctor told him he needed immediate surgery.

An MRI exam showed that two of the discs near Isaacs' neck were pushing on his spinal cord. Isaacs was soon sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, where his C5 and C6 discs were removed and replaced with a mixture of cadaver bone and a bone-growing substance, then enclosed in a mesh cage. A titanium plate secured with four screws holds the replacement together.

"I've got bulletproof vertebrae," Isaacs quipped.

But that wasn't the end of Isaacs' operating-room visits. The veteran of operations Desert Shield and Iraqi Freedom has had three more back surgeries since 2006, including two procedures in his lower back to eliminate bulging discs that were pushing on nerves, followed by a fusion just six months ago.

Despite tough recovery from these surgeries, Isaacs credits his wife with helping him literally to get back on his feet. There were moments during his numerous recoveries that she offered him a "tough love" approach, which was exactly what was needed, he said.

"Having somebody there who has experienced your frustrations and experienced your pain makes going through it that much easier," he said of his wife.

And although he wishes his wife could accompany him in Colorado, he said she is cheering him on from home.

"She's proud," Isaacs said of his wife's support. "She's more than ecstatic."

Issacs is currently up for review by a medical evaluation board, and hopes to stay in the Army.

"If it was up to me, I'd keep my boots on," he said.

Isaacs is braced for more surgeries in the future, but said he will consider getting through 2010 without one a success. For now, his sights are set solely on Colorado.

"I just want to shoot," he said. "I just want to do the best I can and see where this takes me."

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