(USATODAY.com) - The U.S. Paralympic team has no shortage of compelling stories, especially with slightly more than 20% of the 80-person roster comprised of military members. The 18 military members now competing in the Sochi Paralympics is a significant jump from the five veterans four years ago on the USA's 50-member team in Vancouver.
"I think it's awesome in the fact that we're almost getting a second chance to represent our country," said sled hockey forward Josh Sweeney, a retired Marine Corps sergeant. "Being injured, I never thought I'd be able to do something like this again or be able to represent my country again. Having a second chance just means a lot to me."
The majority of military athletes suffered injuries in the line of duty. Sweeney, a bilateral amputee, was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) in October 2009 while serving in Afghanistan. He played hockey growing up and never thought he would be back on the ice after his injury. But he says discovering sled hockey gave him a unit again.
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The U.S. sled hockey team, which won gold in Vancouver, features four military veterans and is 2-0 headed into Tuesday's game against Russia. Defenseman and Army veteran Rico Roman had his left leg amputated above the knee after he was injured by an IED in Iraq in February 2007.
Forward and Marine Corps veteran Paul Schaus is a bilateral, above-knee amputee after being injured by an IED in Afghanistan in 2009. Goaltender and Army sergeant Jen Yung Lee had his left leg amputated above the knee as the result of a 2009 motorcycle crash.
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Retired Marine Corps sergeant and alpine skier Jon Lujan, chosen as the opening ceremony flag bearer for Team USA, said veterans are a natural fit for the Paralympics given their background.
"I think the advantages we have is that we already have the drive and determination and people don't need to tell us where to be, what to do and how to do it," Lujan said. During a mission in Iraq in 2003, Lujan ruptured two disks in his back. The surgery to repair the disks damaged Lujan's spinal cord, leaving him with permanent nerve damage and paralysis in his lower legs.
As with many veterans in the Sochi Games, Lujan first got his start to adaptive winter sports at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, sponsored by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. This year's clinic, March 30-April 4 in Snowmass, Colo., will include about 400 disabled veterans.
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A reason for the growth of military involvement in the Paralympics, which end March 16, is the U.S. Olympic Committee's partnership with the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. The programs have provided opportunities for thousands of veterans to use sport in their recovery.
For the last four years, the USOC has hosted the Warrior Games, a competition involving more than 200 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans.
Through the USOC's Paralympic military programs, veterans are introduced to adaptive sport techniques and opportunities through clinics and connected with ongoing sport programs in their hometowns. Sports participation rates in these various programs has increased from 31% to 54% over the last two years, according to the USOC.
Having military members in the Paralympics "brings us home to what our movement is all about," said Charlie Huebner, the USOC's chief of Paralympics. "These are individuals who are motivated and very patriotic and they care very much about having the USA on their chest."