Story by Bethany McDaniel, Special Olympics Program
MESA, Ariz.—Army Reserve Warrior Medics of the 6253rd United States Army Hospital spend a weekend supporting the Special Olympics Arizona State Games competition held here recently at Mesa Community College.
“They all really enjoyed seeing soldiers in uniform to support them,” said Capt. Dwayne Gbelia, an officer in the Medical Service Corps and the 6253rd USAH’s unit public affairs representative. “For many of the athletes and their families, it was their first opportunity to ‘Thank soldiers’ for their service … this meant a lot to each of us.”
The Healthy Athletes Coordinator for Special Olympics Arizona, Jesse Thompson, said he 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.”
Soldiers dressed in their Army Combat Uniform, with temperatures reaching up into the high 90s, escorted over 1,300 athletes through SOAZ’s Healthy Athletes screenings.
During the screenings, the soldiers joined volunteer medical professionals, from fields such as, disciplines of podiatry, physical therapy, audiology, vision better health and well-being, and dentistry, to observe the athletes being examined. If examiners discovered health issues, they flagged the athlete for a referral and 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 overcome obstacles and difficulties in life that are unimaginable for most. Given their circumstances, these athletes have few opportunities to shine. The Summer Games are one of these treasured opportunities, and the presence of Army Reserve soldiers made the whole experience that much sweeter and memorable for the athletes.
Staff Sgt. John Tevenal, a resident of Chandler, Ariz., and a SOAZ volunteer, said as much as the athletes loved interacting with the soldiers, the soldiers took 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 Tevenal, a medical laboratory technician noncommissioned officer with 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.”
Gbelia, the operations coordinator for the 6253rd USAH, and works as a surgical first assistant around the throughout Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, and Gilbert, Ariz., stated this volunteer experience was the second time for many of the soldiers, the first time they rendered first aid to the athletes at the Fall Games in 2012. He said he looks forward to enhancing the partnership and support of the 6253rd USAH of the Western Medical Area Readiness Support Group with the SOAZ.
“We want to do more,” expressed Gbelia, originally from Portland, and now resides in Gilbert, Ariz., “We have medical professionals and many other soldiers that could be utilized to benefit Special Olympics Program in the future.”
Thompson said although SOAZ has made huge strides in improving the health of the more than 13,000 athletes in Arizona, there is still much more to be done. The Special Olympics Arizona is a non-profit organization and funding is scarce. He hopes the Army Reserve can support many state competitions to come.
“We rely heavily on volunteer support in order to put on effective events for our athletes,” said Thompson. “The response from the athletes, family members, and coaches has been nothing but positive since the Army first volunteered … they were the most valuable volunteers we had at the Summer Games because of their professional demeanor and medical expertise.”