Patriot Profiles: ‘Army Trials awaken a new kind of courage’
“Success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal; it’s courage that counts,” said five-time Olympic Gold medal swimmer Alicia Coutts.
It was a different kind of courage that 1st Lt. Christopher Parks brandished when he powered himself through the water at the 2015 Army Trials. Parks and his rivals in adjoining swim lanes defied failure with every stroke, swimming to win — swimming to warrior on. With the Olympic task to overcome individual physical impairments, they kicked impossible where it hurts.
In 2014, more than 100 wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans from across the U.S. traveled to West Point, N.Y., to train and compete in a series of athletic events called the Army Trials. This year, from March 29 through April 2, the second run of the event took place in Fort Bliss, Texas. All branches of the military were able to compete in seven Paralympic-type sports: swimming, archery, shooting, cycling, sitting volleyball, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.
Learning to live life with one leg led Parks, a former Lakeside resident, to the Trials.
Parks had signed up in 1991. He loved “being able to join the service, to meet and greet different kinds of people from so many types of cultures.” For a directionless kid at 17, he added, “It sounded great, so that’s the direction I took.”
He graduated from the Army’s National Registry 91-Alpha (91-A) EMT course and field trauma training and first served as a combat medic. His role was providing medical treatment to wounded soldiers.
Later, as a physician’s assistant with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, he worked with the Brigade Surgeon, assisting in patient care and tracking medical requirements for his soldiers. Deployed in 2003-04, Parks was a non-commissioned officer in charge of a medical facility at Camp as Sayliyah, Qatar. While healing and comforting the injured and wounded, how was it he would see life through their eyes?
Fast forward to 2014. Parks was rearranging his attic and upon coming down, cut his heel on the hinge of an attic door. “I cleaned it up, bandaged it up, but apparently it wasn’t enough.” Infection set in and he went to the emergency room the next day, his cut infected with the streptococcus virus, which resulted in necrotizing fasciitis. Within 48 hours from that point, he fell into a coma. “I was in a coma for six weeks and woke up without a leg.”
Emotions were understandably mixed: “If my wife had gone visiting her family that weekend, I wouldn’t have made it; she’s the one that made me go to the ER.”
Shock and disbelief hit hard. “I had gone to sleep in my bed on February 28th (night of the accident) and woke up April 15th in San Antonio. The wound had healed up and most of the sutures had been removed.”
It was wake up, “here’s your new life.”
“Everything changed. I had to be creative and innovative to do (what) I used to do before, you know?
“The adjustment for me was pretty quick, because there was no buildup to losing the leg. It was just gone. So hey, you have to deal with it immediately.”
Six months after losing his leg, he was using a prosthetic. “Had to learn how to walk again, yes ma’am — had to learn to do everything.” said Parks.
Medical professionals and Adaptive Reconditioning Coordinators from the Army’s Warrior Transition Units work with recovering soldiers. Activities and sports are part of individual comprehensive transition.
“Their staff has been absolutely amazing — their resources unbelievable. But the people — that’s where the real asset lies, because they care,” stated Parks.
This year was Parks’ first Army Trials with the Warrior Transition Units.
“The training was wonderful, but very, very strenuous. We were busy from 8:15 in the morning to about 9 o’clock at night, competing in different events.”
The athletes were sorted into different categories, based on their injuries, which include spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, serious illnesses, and amputations.
Parks participated in swimming, shot put and discus, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, plus hand cycling. “They looked exciting — different. I’ve never done shot put or discus. It looked fun, so I wanted to give it a shot.”
In swimming, he used a lot of upper body. “The leg kind of gets forgotten. The coaches have to remind me, ‘Kick your stump, darn it, don’t let it just sit there.’”
A unique camaraderie exists among the athletes.
“Even though we were competing against each other there’s a brotherhood, sisterhood. You have a feeling of not being alone anymore,” said Parks.
“The competition enables me to bring out my fighting side while on the court. Working with fellow wounded warriors on a team helps me feel more comfortable with my injury.”
He fought well to move on to the 2015 Department of Defense Warrior Games and placed 4th in Men’s 50 LC Meter Backstroke, 3rd in Men’s Shot Put Seated and 5th in Men’s Discus Throw Seated.
His Team Army Volleyball won a gold medal. (Team Army won the Chairman’s Cup at the 2015 DOD Warrior Games, winning 162 medals to the second-place Marine Corps’ 105 medals).
The thrill of accomplishment has deepened Parks’ inner awakening. “I’m stronger than I realized — and in the face of adversity, I didn’t quit. I’m a more content person than I was a year ago when I lost my leg,” he said. “I’m much more compassionate and understanding and feel more at peace with myself.”
Married for 21 years, his wife, Heather, and children Ryan and Rebecca, are motivated by his accomplishments to achieve their own success.
“It makes me feel really good,” he said, emotion swelling. “I’d like to say thank you to my wife and family. Without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Still on active duty at Fort Hood, Texas, 1st Lt. Christopher Parks continues his recovery at B Company, Warrior Transition Brigade. Of the numerous experiences the Army has given him, leadership traits on “ways to treat people” are what he’ll take away.
What he’ll leave behind is “just that — ways to show people how to treat each other with dignity and respect and still be able to get the job done. It’s been an amazing 22 years and I have nothing to regret.”
The Army Trials showcase the resilient spirit of wounded and injured American Soldiers and Veterans. Success continues for these indomitable warriors who overcome great odds every day.
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