The Central Wisconsin Hero Games marked its fifth year at the Tomah Veterans Assistance Medical Center on Friday.

The Hero Games provide veterans and active-duty service members the opportunity to play sports. Most activities have an ambulatory and wheelchair division.

Debbie Phelps, a physical therapist at the VA who is also an event organizer and member of the VA’s Adaptive Sports Committee, said the event is beneficial to veterans because sports are life changing.

“You take folks who never had any hope possibly, or feel a sense of loss in their world, you need to give them back something,” she said. “As our guest speaker said, ‘if you’re not involved in something, you need to be; you need to have a purpose in this world.’ That’s really what it gives a lot of people is purpose; they find something they love and they continue to pursue that.”

Sports have a positive impact on the whole person, Phelps said.

“It impacts every part of our world — the biological, the psychological and the social aspect,” she said.

Guest speaker Ervin Mulkey said adaptive sports saved his life. Before he tried adaptive sports, he attempted to commit suicide multiple times after his marriage ended and he was confined to a wheelchair. He said he was losing everything and didn’t see a purpose to live.

Mulkey said it was a dark time in his life, but luckily he was still coming to the VA for medical treatment, and Phelps was pushing him to go to Utah and participate in a national adaptive sports event.

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Eventually he agreed and went there with his son, and despite early anxiety about participating, he loved it and realized he could do things he didn’t think he could anymore.

“I just started looking around and there’s stuff all over out there for everybody, adaptive sports and everything, there’s something for military veterans and just the public also,” he said. “Adaptive sports ... the things they do for us are just amazing.”

Since then Mulkey has started handcycling, and last year he completed his first 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) race, finishing 13th out of roughly 60 competitors. Inspired by that effort, he has tried other sports such as bocce, archery, and bowling.

He also started doing wheelchair curling and in April is planning to try out for the national team for the United States’ paralympics team.

“To me I feel like I’m serving again,” he said. “To go out there during the paralympics, which is right after the Olympics, same country and everything ... it’s like I’m serving again. That’s my goal, that’s where I’m headed, and it all started with Deb. It has literally saved my life and changed it; it’s phenomenal, the things that I go and do now.”

Mulkey said what he likes about the Hero Games is that it allows others the chance to try different things and discover something they can be passionate about with others.

“I love the camaraderie that you get competing with other veterans because even though you’re competing, it’s a fun competition,” he said. “It literally takes you back to military time, of when you were there with your other soldiers and everything else; it literally feels like that. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something again. It gives you a purpose.”

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Meghan Flynn can be reached at meghan.flynn@lee.net.

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