Wyoming National Guard biathletes team up with wounded veterans

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Isaac “Mogwai” Graham, who was seriously injured several times while serving as an Army airborne combat camera staff sergeant, shoots with one arm now. He also uses that one arm when performing “penalty pushups” for missing a target. First Lt. Ken Miech, coach of the WyoGuard biathlon team, spots for him, during practice Sept. 28, at the Adaptive Biathlon Camp at the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club. (COURTESY PHOTO / Wyoming Army National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire)

CASPER — It wasn’t readily discernable who was coaching who at the week-long Adaptive Biathlon Camp held last week at the Casper Mountain Biathlon Club, but it is clear that everyone came away a winner. Wyoming National Guard biathletes helped build the skillsets of wounded American military veterans while the para-athletes taught a lesson in humility.

The veterans came from all over the United States. Some are blind. Some are missing limbs. Some are battling the effects of traumatic brain injuries and a myriad of other maladies, but they are a dedicated bunch eager to learn and master a new sport.

Some are still on active duty, stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, some take part in several sports including cross-country skiing, wheelchair racing, rowing and precision shooting. One soldier even moved to Casper a few months ago from Missouri, to make training for a second trip to the Paralympic Winter Games more accessible.

“I have a wife and kids, but this is my life. It’s my job. I love it,” said Bryan Price, whose Army career as a staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division was ended in 2006 when an improvised explosive device detonated near him. “I loved being in the Army and I love doing this. I was like these guys who used to travel here for camp, but I want to be ready for PyeongChang (South Korea) in March.”

He, like several of the wounded warriors in Casper train for a number of sports at clinics and camps around the country. The program is supported by the Veterans Affairs Administration and is available to all para-athletes who want to participate.

While it took years of rehab to simply learn to get around on prosthetic limbs, once Price mastered that, it was off to the races, and an eventual trip to the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

Rob Rosser, a former Olympian and captain in the Wyoming Army National Guard, turned his attention to building a world-class biathlon facility on Casper Mountain nine years ago, and has since been recruiting wounded warriors to participate in his passion.

For example, he met Jataya Taylor, from Aurora, Colorado, at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Philadelphia. The former U.S. Marine Corps private first class was injured in a training accident in 2005. Her leg never healed and eventually was amputated. She spent a long time at Walter Reed, but was motivated to make the most of her condition and therefore takes part in several athletic disciplines as well as musical pursuits.

Former Marine Pfc. Jataya Taylor eyes her shooting position after the first lap of the culminating time trial event at the Adaptive Biathlon Camp, Sept. 28. This is the ninth year the club has helped train wounded veterans and her first time trying the sport. (COURTESY PHOTO / Wyoming Army National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire)

“Rob saw me in Philadelphia and invited me to come up here,” she said of her initiation to biathlon. “I don’t have a biathlon rifle yet, but I’m using my precision rifle for now. It’s a lot different out here. I’m used to being indoors in a very controlled environment.”

Chief Warrant Officer 4 David Roberts, the Wyoming National Guard’s biathlon coordinator, was helping her load pellets into her rifle during the time trials held Sept. 28. This is his third year helping coach at the camp. He said working with these athletes keeps him in check with his own shortcomings.

“It is so humbling and inspiring,” he said. “It really makes me not take anything for granted. They never quit, or say ‘this is too hard.’ I’m getting older, and maybe losing a few steps, but they inspire me to not let the challenge of that get in my way and to push harder.”

He pointed to the effort of Isaac “Mogwai” Graham, who as an airborne combat camera staff sergeant, sustained one too many injuries to carry on as a soldier. Despite the long list of injuries that might cause many people to simply give up hope and live the rest of their life on opioids and bed rest, he was up in Casper learning how to be a biathlete.

Roberts said Graham, who now makes his home in North Dakota, could have taken some easier paths when they started the week doing preliminary exercises at the golf course.

“He is always pushing so hard; going up hills rather than taking the easy way. It’s so inspiring,” Roberts said. “They all work so hard.”

David Collins was an Army finance and accounting specialist when he lost his sight due to a hereditary disease. The Corona, California, resident is grateful for the opportunity to rebuild his life after taking a few years of going the opposite direction.

“The Army took good care of me,” he said during a pause from shooting a rifle equipped with a laser that feeds an audible signal, via headphones, letting him know he is on target.

“These camps are so great. I went to a summer sports clinic and there are so many sports they adapt to; so many exercises,” Collins said. “It’s great to see people start doing again what they used to do.”

He said he didn’t know what to expect of the Casper camp.

“I thought, ‘what are we gonna do, there’s not even any snow up there?’ But it’s been great because we learn from everyone and everyone’s got little tricks and tips. Plus we’ve done so many adaptive exercises and we went to the gym to learn preventive exercises.”

Spc. Micah Burke, an infantryman with Wyoming’s C Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, is new to the sport, but happy to help out with the camp.

“I haven’t even skied before, but I’m learning on roller skis,” the newest biathlon team member said. “It’s so humbling working with these guys. I’d better get it. If these guys can, I know I can too.”

“It’s so encouraging that our veterans are taken care of, and we get to help take care of our own,” Roberts said. “I’m thrilled that our state gives us the chance to do this.”

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