TAMPA, Florida -- As hundreds of military veterans fly into Tampa International Airport on Friday, Josefina Bettes will be there to welcome them with open arms and lots of loud cheering.
She wanted to be a volunteer greeter as athletes flew in for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in honor of her late husband. They were married for more than 40 years, and he served in the Army.
"This is the closest thing that I have to my husband," she says. "I love my soldiers."
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is the world's largest annual wheelchair sporting event. Opening ceremonies take place on Saturday, with competitions continuing through Thursday. You can find the schedule of events here.
It's expected to draw around 600 veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition due to spinal cord injuries, amputations, or other impairments. It's a new experience for Tampa Bay and for Tampa International Airport.
"We've never had close to 400 passengers with wheelchairs come in one day," says TIA spokeswoman Emily Nipps. "A lot of them are coming with several competition chairs a piece."
TIA worked with its employees and a group of volunteers on training, even simulations, over a 10 month period. The airport partnered with wheelchair repair staff and also with UPS to help with transporting chairs. Veteran Ken Debalek, who competes in five different athletic events, says the process has gone smoothly and he's excited to be in Tampa.
"For veterans, it's something to do. When you're stuck in a chair and there's not much to do, you get bored real fast," he says, adding that he often has to sleep in his wheelchair because of pain. "For veterans, this is great stuff."
Bettes is happy to be able to welcome these athletes to Tampa.
"If it wasn't for these heroes," she says, "We could never live the American dream."
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