Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Chad McDuffee: Back from the Darkness

Back in August of 2013 I had the privilege to work on a project with Standard-Times sports reporter Carlos Siva about a local Army combat veteran, Chad McDuffee, who lives in Ballinger with his wife and three children. The story was originally supposed to be a quick profile of Chad that would publish in a Sunday edition of the paper and that would be that. But after spending about an hour with the McDuffees at their Ballinger home, Carlos and I quickly realized that a more in-depth story package was required to adequately tell their story. And thanks to the leadership here at the Standard-Times, we were given the opportunity to do just that.

First, here's a little background on the McDuffees and why we decided to devote more time to tell their story:

After graduation from Ballinger High School, Chad, then 18-years-old, knew that he wanted to devote a portion of his life to military service. Spurred on by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a little nudge from a school friend who had already joined, Chad entered the Army to fulfill that dream. He went on to serve from January 2002 to May 2013, being deployed to Iraq twice during that time. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2006, Chad's convoy was hit by roadside bombs. Several vehicles, including Chad's, sustained damage in the attack. Chad's armored security vehicle (ASV) sustained light damage and the driver was able to drive to relative safety. The vehicle in front of them was not so lucky. It took a direct hit and was quickly turning into an inferno with fellow soldiers trapped inside.

Chad jumped out of his wounded ASV and ran back to the burning wreckage to offer whatever help he could to his squadmates. They tried putting the fire out with an extinguisher but because it was fueled by gasoline it didn't work. At this point Chad had climbed on top of the burning vehicle to look for a way to help but found none so he jumped off. "That was the moment, when I leaped from the roof of the ASV, that I feel like I broke it," Chad said. That "it" Chad was talking about was his foot. Fortunately, all the soldiers got out of the wreckage and everyone was accounted for. Chad had a doctor examine his foot and was told that it was a severe sprain. The diagnosis was wrong. Chad served another five years, including another tour in Iraq, on a broken foot.

Eventually, a doctor in Hawaii gave him a diagnosis he knew to be true. He had a broken foot and he would need surgery. Several failed surgeries later Chad's foot was useless. He would have to use a cane for the rest of his life. And, along with being physically handicapped, Chad was beginning to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the battlefield. He was beginning to go down a very dark path. His anger and anxiety began to take a toll on the rest of the family, but as he was going through rehabilitation, he learned about sporting competitions for injured veterans and soon had a new passion. "It was all about positive mental attitude," Chad said. The competitions became a new passion and in 2012 Chad competed in the Valor Game Midwest and won a bronze medal in powerlifting. Chad's new goal... earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team in time for the 2016 Games in Brazil.

Chad spent the next year training and competing in other competitions, earning more medals in various events like javelin, discus and shot put. Carlos and I met up with him as he was preparing to head up to Chicago for the 2013 Valor Games Midwest and this is when we decided to ask our editors if we could tag along for the ride. The project was given the green light and in August we found ourselves on an airplane landing in Chicago for three days of competition.

The first day of competition, Aug. 12, was a pretty relaxing day for the McDuffees. Chad was going to be competing in cycling, an event he hadn't previously done before. So after the opening ceremony at Soldier Field we made our way to the South Parking Lot so Chad could get checked in and fitted for a bike. In Chad's division they were going to be using recumbent bikes and because he is not able to put much pressure on his right foot, most of the peddling duties would fall to his left leg. Chad managed to progress through to the final race after two preliminary rounds and finished just outside the top three. "That was just a ton of fun," Chad said.

The second day of competition was a little more serious because it was the day that Chad would be competing in his bread-and-butter events - seated shot put and discus - events he had trained for all year. "The shot put competition is where I've put a majority of my focus," Chad said. "If I'm going to make it to Rio in 2016, it'll be in this event." After getting strapped into a specialized throwing chair Chad gave a loud grunt as he threw his first attempt. I think it caught spectators by surprise by how far his throw was including the measurement official who called out "I need more slack on the tape. I didn't expect it to go this far." Chad's first throw measured 8.78 meters, about 28 feet. He followed it up with a second throw of 8.56 meters and an event-best 9.12 meters. "I could have done better," Chad said. "Something felt off." In all it was a good day for Chad who finished with a gold medal in the shot put and a silver in the discus.

On the third day of competition Chad was competing in one final event, powerlifting, which he would go on to win a gold medal. But as nice as it was to win the hardware for his hard work throughout his year of training, the real awards where earned through the camaraderie with fellow veterans and in the relationship with his wife Jaslyn. With raising three small children and a husband rehabilitating from foot surgery and dealing with the symptoms of PTSD, Jaslyn had to take on extra duties around the household. "He was always a very hands-on dad, but now with his injury, PTSD and training for paralympic games, I was left alone to deal with family matters by myself," Jaslyn said. "I have to admit, I was angry about being left alone while he was off having fun."

It's not just the veterans that feel the strain of the physical and mental ailments, but also their families. Jaslyn had to learn how to be around Chad again. "It's hard for me to have a bad day because he feeds off of that," Jaslyn said of the days when Chad's PTSD rears its ugly head, "and I feel like I'm never allowed to have a bad day because then it just gets worse." But since his involvement in the games Jaslyn has noticed a significant change in his attitude. "But then I realized that his training was helping him with his bouts with PTSD," Jaslyn said. "It was doing us, as a family, a lot of good."

In the last few months since the 6-page special section published Carlos and I have kept up with the McDuffees and things have been going well for them. They have started up a home-based photography business, a bank in Ballinger has set up a fund for the McDuffees that people can donate to, a veterans organization has granted funds for Chad to purchase a new throwing chair so he doesn't have to use a plastic lawn chair for training and Jaslyn was given an all-expense paid weekend trip for wives of wounded veterans. This is a family deserving of all of this and it was truly an honor to get to know them. And hopefully, Carlos and I will be able to report more of the McDuffees' continued success as Chad reaches for his goal of the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and the strengthening of their family.

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