Ilijia Zafiroski played volleyball in New Jersey when he was in high school. As one of two children raised by a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Macedonia, he said he became one of the top high school players in the country.Today, Zafiroski still plays, but from a sitting position.
The game may sound easier when the net is only 2 feet high and players get to sit down, but sitting volleyball has been a learning experience, he said.
“You get a different outlook once you try to do it a little bit,” Zafiroski said. “You’re so used to being on your feet and moving and when you sit down, it’s like a whole new mind frame. Eighty percent of regular volleyball, you’ve got to forget about it. Your hands become your feet.”
Zafiroski is one of six Soldiers from the Warrior Transition Battalion who will represent Fort Benning at the 2011 Warrior Games May 16-21, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Quintarious Almon, Peter Danielson, Matthew Harvey, Robert Nuss and LaCrisha Wheeler were also selected to play sitting volleyball for the Army team.
The Warrior Games, sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Department of Defense, will include sports such as shooting, swimming, archery, track and field, cycling, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
For these Soldiers, wounds have separated them from serving their country.
“I can’t function as a Soldier anymore and it sucks,” Danielson said. “It really does. I try not to think about it.”
But what Danielson and the other warriors agree on is the Warrior Games has given them another chance to serve in the Army — and training has become their life.
“It’s awesome to just be going out and doing something instead of sitting in the hospital or sitting in your house thinking about your injuries,” Danielson said.
Danielson was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury caused by close contact with improvised explosive devices when he was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. After being stationed at Fort Benning to train incoming privates to be M240B gunners, Danielson began to show signs of his TBI when he developed a stutter. He was transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion, where he has been for about a year.
Zafiroski has torn ligaments in his ankle that caused him so much pain, he said he is unable to walk for an extended period of time. The injuries came in Iraq when he was playing sports with his company. The camp he was on began taking mortar fire and in the confusion, Zafiroski took a bad fall to the ground, which caused ligaments in his ankle and hand to tear.
“I still have a lot of pain, but if you like doing something, sometimes you tend to overlook the pain and deal with it,” he said.
Zafiroski said the Warrior Games give opportunities to recognize nearly all Soldiers who participate and not just those who are the best.
The Warrior Games will award medals to participating Soldiers based on the types of injuries they have, not necessarily how they finish in the specific event they are in.“I might be the only one with that type of injury, but I would still get a gold medal because no one else is in the same category,” Zafiroski said.
Harvey, who along with Nuss are the only Fort Benning participants returning to the Warrior Games, witnessed firsthand how the inaugural Warrior Games in 2010 made an impact on the lives of Soldiers who lost limbs in the line of duty.
“I think it accomplished quite a bit,” Harvey said. “The environment was friendly and very competitive. Everyone who is there wants to be there. There’s really no negativity. There’s really no time for negativity.”
Harvey has spent the past five years trying to prove people wrong since he returned from Iraq and was forced to go through five major surgeries and 29 minor surgeries on his back, he said.
“They told me I wouldn’t walk again,” Harvey said. “They told me I would be in a wheelchair; I would be able to use my legs but I wouldn’t be able to walk. But that’s not me; I don’t like being told I can’t do something.”
Like Danielson, Harvey has had multiple encounters with explosions, including IEDs, mortar rounds and RPGs, the force of which have done significant damage to his back. “I’d still live and do what I have to do if I were in a wheelchair,” Harvey said.
“Eventually I might end up in a wheelchair. The injuries are going to get worse and worse over time. My back will continue to deteriorate.”
Harvey has already reached his goal of being able to walk on his own and has enjoyed that freedom for two years. The Warrior Games will give him an opportunity to show he can compete in athletics, he said, and not just sitting volleyball but also other events in track and field.
“It gives us the opportunity to showcase our abilities rather than concentrating on our disabilities,” Harvey said. “For me, proving someone wrong that I can physically do something makes me happy.”
Harvey’s 8-year-old daughter, Autumn, has been another source of motivation, he said, not just to compete but to try to live a normal life. Autumn has a hearing impairment and Harvey said she has a determination to learn to speak and communicate through sign language.
“My daughter deserves a father,” Harvey said. “She doesn’t deserve a miserable person. That’s pretty much my driving force. I think about her and I think about the stuff she’s had to overcome, working to overcome her communication barrier.”
Harvey said he hopes the wounded warriors who are going to the Warrior Games for the first time will get a new experience of encouragement from Soldiers who have lost limbs and are still able to accomplish their own personal goals.
“It’s presenting opportunities to Soldiers who still have to live their life after being in the service,” Harvey said. “I know these guys who haven’t been there are going to have a blast.”