Many people who have participated in a Fort Bragg Spartan Race or the All-American Marathon have been inspired by the adaptive and masked athletes running beside them. A large number of these athletes are members of the all-volunteer Operation Enduring Warrior organization.
OEW is a non-profit organization founded in 2013 by members of the U.S. Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force to empower wounded veteran adaptive athletes through races like the All-American Marathon and adventure experiences including skydiving and scuba diving, said Eric Schmitz, president, OEW.
“(We have) all different avenues for wounded veterans to get involved in — the things they were interested in, the things that maybe challenged them before their injuries and they just want to readdress and tackle those,” he said.
Becoming a part of OEW also helps wounded veterans fill in some of the gaps they may miss from military life, according to Earl Granville, adaptive athlete and OEW team member.
“There were a lot of voids when I got out of the military,” he said. “You lose a lot of your tasks and purpose after you’re in this culture of the military and then in a situation like this when I lost my leg and I had to get out, in joining an organization like OEW, I’m part of a team again.”
Schmitz agreed and said his favorite part of the organization is the Family unit atmosphere. He was originally drawn to OEW because no one is treated as “special.”
“We are there to empower (adaptive athletes) and not coddle them and I think that’s what draws people to us,” said Schmitz. “We help them reach their own goals. They’re the ones doing it — we aren’t carrying them to their goal.”
MAs and OEW Community Ambassadors are two ways the organization helps wounded veterans reach these goals.
The MAs run all races in a version of an Army Combat Uniform with a helmet and a gas mask, which symbolizes the hardships wounded veterans live with every day. MAs go through a strenuous selection process that includes teamwork and physical challenges to confirm the MAs can conquer any physical event and ensure the safety of future adaptive athletes.
“The whole goal of having them there is to get the adaptive athlete through the ... race safely without them getting further injured so that it empowers them to grow,” said Schmitz.
The OCA program is one of the biggest parts of the organization, according to Schmitz. It gives anyone interested the ability to become a part of the OEW team. OCAs compete in races wearing OEW gear, raise money and awareness for the organization.
Along with many OCAs, Granville and Schmitz have both participated in the All-American Marathon or Mike-to-Mike Half Marathon. They said they appreciate the support from the Fort Bragg and Fayetteville communities during the event.
“It’s a good event to run with the veterans, especially as you come up All American Freeway and onto post with all the signs,” said Schmitz. “Then there’s the Soldiers at the main gate that are cheering people on. It’s one of those great events that you just can’t help but get behind and have a good time.”
Granville agreed and said it was a special race to run as part of the organization.
“We all ran together with OEW last year and just to be alongside my teammates, my brothers and sisters completing a half marathon together, I thought it was just awesome,” he said.
This camaraderie is part of what motivates adaptive athletes who are members of the organization. Granville said OEW has assisted him both physically and mentally and given him a sense of purpose to help others. It also gave him the confidence to take on new leadership roles and challenges, including returning to school.
Although the organization began with participation in races, both Granville and Schmitz stressed that OEW is more than just these athletic events.
“We offer skydiving licensure, a scuba diving program to get certified and we are slowly building as an organization,” said Granville. “It’s more than just challenging yourself physically — it’s a lot of adventure activities as well.”
However people choose to participate in the organization, they should prepare to get back just as much as they give.
“I have multiple stories myself of being out on the course with (adaptive athletes) — I just walked away and I couldn’t stop thinking for days about how this former Marine, missing both legs, blind, was laughing and giving me a hard time for eight miles of a Spartan,” said Schmitz. “You walk away and your worries aren’t that big.”
For more information about Operation Enduring Warrior, visit www.enduringwarrior.org.