Getting active saved Ervin Mulkey’s life.

It’s part of the reason why he attended the Central Wisconsin Hero Games Friday at the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“I mainly came for the camaraderie ... (but) since I got into the adaptive sports, it has changed my life − actually it saved my life,” he said. “I ... had already tried to commit suicide a couple of times, and once I got into adaptive sports, it just opened the world to me.”

Mulkey is an Army veteran who has been in a wheelchair since 2008 due to a spinal cord injury. He wants to help others discover the healing power of exercise.

“I know that if it can do it for me, it will do it for somebody else,” he said. “So I just have to come and yell and cheer and give the guys encouragement and everything else.”

That determination to change lives is why the Hero Games were created and have continued for the past three years, said Debbie Phelps, Tomah VA physical therapist and coordinator for the Hero Games.

“The Hero Games is really an opportunity for adaptive sports. We use it to get veterans ... back out there and out moving,” she said. “It’s proven that if they can get active again, it really gives you your life back.”

The games are made up of 12 events for a full day of activity, beginning with the opening ceremony and finishing 6 ½ hours later with the closing ceremony, where medals are given out to the winners of each event.

The Hero Games also include three exhibition events — pickleball, a rock climbing wall and kayaking, sponsored by Adaptive Adventures.

Athletes can participate in a total of five events, Phelps said. Between 110 and 115 athletes registered to participate.

The best thing about the Hero Games, Mulkey said, is seeing the participants’ enjoyment.

“I was playing cornhole with another gentleman that isn’t as physically fit as I am − he was in a wheelchair also − and he couldn’t even get the bean bag to the thing. So I told (a volunteer) to, ‘pull it closer for him,’” he said “They pulled it closer, and he started hitting it on (the board), so I started flubbing mine just to let him win, to have that, ‘I won, I beat him.’ Just the look on his face when he won − if I walk away with nothing else, that made my day. That’s why I come ... to hopefully encourage somebody else to either get into it or to keep doing it.”

Encouraging others is why Lisa “Lia” Coryell, came out.

Coryell is an army veteran who served for two years until she diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 19.

She is a paralympic archer who shoots for the United States national and world paralympic teams.

“These are my people,” she said. “(I came) not necessarily to participate but to lead by example ... I want to motivate them ... to show them how to get there.”

Coryell wants to help veterans get invested in their lives again.

“Every single athlete here today has stepped up to the line at one point or another because they’re all military,” she said. “At one point they stepped up and said, ‘I will protect and defend my people and this country.’ So I’m asking them to do it again. They might be in a really dark spot, but you can do it again.”

It’s difficult sometimes to more forward, Coryell said. She knows from experience.

“When I ended up in the chair, I didn’t know who I was,” she said. “I have incurable MS; I have an incurable, progressive disease. So I tried not to die ... I decided at one point, I’m just going to move forward. I had this opportunity to shoot archery, and I’m like, ‘Why not? I’m going to die anyway.’ Because you know what, we all are. So it’s not about you here, it’s about the legacy you leave behind.”

Coryell’s realization that she had more to live for occurred when she was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was put on an advisory board for student veterans and saw there was only a two percent graduation rate. She tried to discover why veterans weren’t graduating.

“Seeing them show up every day, some of them had significant PTSD, anxiety ... they showed up every day, because they felt like it was a dishonor for them not to make the best life for their comrades that died, the people in their unit that died. If they didn’t come back here and try the hardest they could to build a good life, they would be letting them down,” she said. “I’m like, ‘how can I do any less?’”

The Hero Games provides a positive experience for veterans and active military, Coryell said. She hopes more people get involved.

“What’s really cool is it’s active duty, too. I think that’s a big component,” she said. “It shouldn’t be us and them ... we’re all on the same side. ... We’re all the same military family, and we just need to start including each other.”

Mulkey is happy to see how the Hero Games have evolved since the first year. He said a fellow veteran told him that “they’ve put a lot more emphasis on it now.”

“I had heard some stuff about the past years and everything as far as it not being as good,” Mulkey said. “Well, I said, ‘come out this year, just give it one more try.’ It’s awesome for the VA to do this for us. That way (veterans) can see that the VA is here for us.”


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