There is no denying that the United States Army is made up of heroes – brave and dedicated individuals who risk their lives daily in order to protect our freedom. Each one of these individuals is extremely important to the fabric of our society as we know it. It should then come as no surprise that these well-known heroes willingly gave a weekend of their time to support a less likely group of heroes.
On March 26th and 27th, a group of soldiers from the 6253rd USAH in Mesa, Arizona volunteered at the Special Olympics Arizona (SOAZ) State Games competition held at Mesa Community College. Dressed in full uniform with temperatures reaching up into the high 90’s, the soldiers cheerfully escorted athletes through SOAZ’s Healthy Athletes screenings. In these screenings, the athletes are examined by volunteer medical professionals in the disciplines of podiatry, physical therapy, better health and well-being, audiology, vision, and dentistry. If any potential health issues are discovered, the athlete is then flagged for a referral and is assisted in receiving follow-up care. In addition to helping out with Healthy Athletes, the soldiers also provided the athletes with water, high fives, cheers, and smiles.
Many of the SOAZ athletes, all of which have intellectual disabilities, have had to overcome obstacles and difficulties in life that are unimaginable for most. Chances for these athletes to shine and feel appreciated are few and far between. The Summer Games are one of these treasured opportunities, and the presence of U.S. Army soldiers made the whole experience that much sweeter for the athletes.
Jesse Thompson, Healthy Athletes Coordinator for SOAZ, was moved by the athletes’ reactions to the soldiers. “Every time a soldier was matched up to escort athletes through the health screenings, they would immediately get a huge smile on their face,” said Thompson. “The soldiers are all-stars to our athletes.”
“They really enjoyed us being there,” said Captain Dwayne Gbelia, a member of the 6253rd USAH. “If we weren’t wanted, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.”
As much as the athletes loved interacting with the soldiers, the soldiers were able to take away just as much, if not more, from the experience. “Although our presence there seems to boost the spirits of the athletes and the other volunteers, I feel it does a lot more for me,” said Sergeant Tevenal, another volunteer from the 6253rd USAH. “It’s gratifying to serve the athletes and to help them to fulfill their dreams. We all want to do it again.”
For some of the soldier volunteers, this was their second experience with SOAZ after volunteering at the Fall Games in 2012 where they provided first aid services for the athletes. Captain Gbelia is hoping to continue to grow the 6253rd USAH’s involvement with SOAZ in the future. “We want to do more,” he said. “We have professional doctors and many other resources that could be utilized to benefit Special Olympics.”