Warrior Games archer Manny Gonzalez's invisible injuries
CHICAGO -- It's a great gag. When Manny Gonzalez meets someone and feels playful, he rolls up the left leg of his shorts, exposing a wide mouth-shaped scar from a shrapnel wound. Then he says he was bitten by a shark.
"That will break the ice," he said, laughing. "Then I tell them the truth, and now it's not a big deal."
Gonzalez, 26, was having a good day. He spoke Friday in the McCormick Center, relaxing in the bleachers overlooking the indoor archery range at the Warrior Games, where he just finished practicing. Gonzalez will compete here Monday in individual compound bow.
The Warrior Games brings together more than 250 veterans and active-duty military from the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, in sports like sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, shooting, track and field. Some exhibit noticeable battle-related injuries -- missing limbs, hands and feet. Many more are like Gonzalez, seemingly able-bodied with wounds that are hidden, but just as challenging.
A hospital corpsman second class in the Navy, Gonzalez was injured seven years ago in Afghanistan when a bomb exploded while he and two other Marines were retrieving the body of a Marine killed in action. Gonzalez still has shrapnel in both legs from the blast. As war wounds go, it wasn't catastrophic.
"I got pretty lucky," he said.
Later he developed post traumatic stress disorder, which precluded a return to the front lines. So Gonzalez, who loved the adrenaline rush of combat, turned to alcohol to cope.
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Six months ago Gonzalez quit drinking, signed up for the Navy's substance abuse and PTSD recovery programs and joined its Wounded Warriors team. Gonzalez tried almost every sport that was offered until settling on archery, something he had never done and found much more physically demanding than it looks. Mastering a heavy bow requires strength and concentration for long periods of time.
"First time I picked up a bow, starting shooting, and I fell in love with it," he said. "I think it takes a lot of focus. You've got to be able to control your breathing. You've got to be able to control your body movement. I have ADD, so that's really hard for me. But it helps slow me down, which I can use later on. It's awesome they gave me the opportunity to join the team and to try something new out."
Jessie White, the archery coach for the Navy who was wounded himself in a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq, thinks Gonzalez's passion and diligence could make him a medal contender. White lives in Georgia, and every week he requires his archers to forward videos of themselves practicing. Gonzalez's video, he said, usually arrives first. Gonzalez is also color blind, so he uses a monocular -- a small telescope -- to size up the lines on his target.
"He was really into learning the sport," White said. "We gave him a lot of stuff to take home. He did it. You can tell he was really working hard to do what he needed to do. Absolutely he could win a medal just as well as anybody in there."
Just competing here marks progress for Gonzalez, a native of Rialto, California, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base near San Diego. He said he never could have achieved it without the two recovery programs.
"I got hit when I was 19, a year into being in the Navy," he said. "When I came back, I had the wrong attitude. I was able to talk about what happened, but I couldn't process it. I got blown up and I thought it was cool. I would walk around and be real cocky. I was an E-2 9 [his rank], and I had all the ribbons and awards.
"But after a while, I started shutting down. My friends started leaving the unit. Every once in a while, it would get to the point where all I wanted to do was drink and sleep. I wouldn't go out. To me, that was normal. I stopped talking about everything. Eventually it just started building up, building up."
Quitting drinking, he said, showed him how much he relied on it to mask what he was feeling.
"The drinking and PTSD go hand-in-hand," he said. "It just affects so many of our service members. It affects a lot of my Marines and corpsman that I know. I want to be able to show them, hey, there's a better way to deal with this."
His life, he said, is easier at the moment. "It's the first time I've taken my recovery seriously," he said. "I go to groups. I go to individual therapy. A bunch of different appointments just so I can get better."
And he picks up a bow.
The competition in Chicago will be grueling. Archers shoot at small targets 18 meters downrange. They shoot two rounds of 300 arrows with a 20-minute break in between. Then the top eight scorers move on to the medal round, going head-to-head. The whole thing, White said, could take seven hours. Gonzalez was so worn out just from Thursday's practice that he pulled out his right knee brace Friday and put it on.
"The hardest part is getting people to understand the physical side of it," White said. "They think archery's easy and there's nothing physical about it, but it's an extremely physical sport.
"Think about it: You're drawing a bow back 100 times. That bow's 60 pounds. You've just lifted 6,000 pounds in matter of two hours, three hours. To get over that physical demand is the hardest part. Once they get the physical part of it down, then it's just defining process, understanding what it takes to get the bow to do what they want it to do."
Gonzalez, meanwhile, finds inspiration in his fellow competitors everywhere he looks.
"It's impressive to see what some of these guys can do," he said. "They're doing the sprints as double-leg amputees. I can't really do that. It's motivational, seeing them. If that doesn't tell you to not quit, I don't know what will."