By Shannon Collins, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In August 2015, while Army Master Sgt. George Vera was working for U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, a large group of insurgents detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device at the front gate and had insurgents with suicide vests try to overrun the base and detonate their explosives.
Almost two hours into the firefight, after his best friend had been shot and killed, the base was thought to be all but secured. But as Vera was helping to check under vehicles, he was attacked by two men hiding under a vehicle 30 feet away from him.
“They shot me and hit me four times -- twice in the left leg, ankle and knee, and then twice in the back. It shattered my spine, so I’m paralyzed from the spine and below,” he said. “I was in Germany for about three weeks, and then they got me to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland]. They sent me to the Baltimore shock trauma unit and then back to Walter Reed. I just kind of slowly woke up after almost three months of being unconscious.”
Angela Vera, his wife of 13 years, said it was pretty scary. “George was very sick, and it was pretty scary,” she said. “I flew to Germany, and whenever family flies to Germany, it’s because they’re going to die. So you have to say goodbye to him. I was scared, but I had faith. I knew he would get better at some point. Everything’s about God and family support.
“Just because he’s in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he’s not going to be able to do the same things he was doing before,” she said. “He’s able to do the same things, but in a wheelchair. Things change.”
Family Love of Sports
George met Angela while stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia 15 years ago. “I was in my last year of college. We met at church -- just kidding,” she joked. They met at a dance club where she went to watch her country play soccer. “They were looking for a party or something, but I went to watch the game,” she said. George said his house is a house divided, because Angela still cheers for her country’s soccer team, but he cheers for the U.S. team.
George’s eldest daughter, Sydney, 19, plays rugby, and his youngest daughter, Isabella, 11, does gymnastics. Isabella said she also enjoys racing her dad. Before his injury, George ran half marathons and once ran the Honolulu marathon.
“We cycle and race, but she usually wins,” he said.
“It’s usually downhill -- me running and him in his wheelchair -- or we cycle around the neighborhood,” Isabella said.
Pride in Recovery
Vera, who now works as an instructor at the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, said he stayed strong throughout his recovery because of the strength of his family.
“I have a very strong family. I had a lot of people from my old unit who came to see me all the time,” he said. “I was a little cranky sometimes. There’s parts of my family I hadn’t seen in a long time, 10 or 12 years, and they were right there to support us.
“And my immediate family, my wife, she pushes me, which she’s supposed to do,” he continued. “It’s good. It helps out a lot. I could see how hard it would be if you didn’t have a family.”
Although Vera is relatively new to adaptive sports, having started the programs in January, his wife said he’s all about goals. “He says, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and he fights really hard until he gets it,” she said.
“I’m still physically not strong enough to do some of the things; even when I get on a bike here, I have to have guys help me in and out,” Vera admitted.
“But,” Angela proudly said, “He has two gold medals and two bronze medals.” He earned his gold medals in the shot put and discus in his disability category and bronze medals in the cycling time trial and road race during this week’s 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy here.
Sydney said she’s been very proud watching her father compete this week. “It makes me so proud of him I could cry,” she said. “He’s come such a long way, and I’m so proud of him. He’s doing so great. It makes my heart happy to just see him doing what he wants to do.”
Her sister agreed. “I feel proud,” Isabella said. “Maybe people who have disabilities like my dad or maybe kids, or if something happens to them like this, they can see what different things they can do -- maybe cycle or different sports. My dad’s paralyzed, and he’s doing it. I feel really proud.”
Angela said she’s proud of her husband every single day. “I’m not going to lie -- some days, he’s weak, but I always push him,” she said. “It’s not because I want to be mean. It’s because I know he can do it. He’s really strong, and when everything happened, the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘He’s going to make it. Even in the wheelchair, I don’t care, he’s going to make it.’”
Angela said her husband inspires everyone he meets. “Kids want to be like him. I’m so proud of him,” she said.
DoD Warrior Games
The girls said the games made them proud not only of their father, but also of the other athletes. “It’s crazy to see all these teams come together and play their hearts out,” Sydney said. “I’ve never seen this before. I’m really happy to be a part of it. There’s so much love here; it’s great.”
“When warriors get wounded or shot, the Warrior Games helps them know they have something to do instead of staying in a hospital room or their house,” Isabella said. “They can actually compete with other people, do some cool things. It’s not always about competing. It’s about fun, meeting new people, seeing what happened to them, maybe learning some new languages, or accents, or just making new friends -- things like that.”
George said during cycling, he was riding next to a British athlete who was in the wrong gear and having trouble. He told him to switch the gears. “He was like, ‘I’m so tired.’ I told him, ‘Switch the gear.’ He was like, ‘Oh mate, I didn’t know that; this makes sense.’ I think he may have been one of the guys on the stand that beat me,” George said, laughing. “It’s not about the competition.”
Vera said it’s great that, the athletes have their families to support them, because when service members are wounded, the families are affected as well.
“Everybody’s affected by it -- your parents, your sisters, your brothers, everybody,” he said. “The support of the family is the most important thing. Family is everything.”
Isabella said she encourages people to help their wounded family members “because you never know what’s possible unless you try.”