Wounded veterans rediscovering themselves through tennis

September 5, 2016 12:28 PM

By Ashley Marshall, USTAFoundation.com

For a trio of Air Force veterans who served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Open is more than just a tennis tournament.

Wounded warriors Capt. Mitchell Kieffer, Staff Sgt. Gideon Connelly and Stephen Otero are three of the 280 ball persons working at the US Open this year as part of the USTA Foundation’s Military Outreach program, which identifies wounded service members and veterans who are elite athletes.

For them, the final Slam of the year represents rehabilitation, brotherhood and a sense of belonging. And never has tennis and service come together more than on Monday, when the US Open recognizes those who fight to protect our freedoms as part of Military Appreciation Day.

The three veterans come from different cities, different backgrounds and different military careers. But they share a common bond of using sport to rehabilitate from injuries after meeting in 2013 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., a short drive south of the United States Air Force Academy.

Capt. Kieffer, 31, suffered a traumatic brain injury and broke seven vertebrae in 2011 when insurgents in Baghdad attacked the SUV he was traveling in with an improvised explosive device.

It took more than a year for his mental injuries to heal. His physical injuries still trouble him today at times, but he has since competed in the Invictus Games Warrior Games, taken part in triathlons and earned a master’s degree as part of his rehabilitation. His latest challenge brings him to Flushing Meadows, and he said there’s nowhere he’d rather be this week and nobody he’d rather be here with

“Just like the USTA Foundation’s motto, 'Serving Up Dreams,' this is really a dream,” said Kieffer, a Purple Heart recipient who grew up in Minnesota and spent eight years in the Air Force from 2007 to 2015. “The ability for the Foundation to offer us the opportunity to come out to this world-class stage makes my year. Everyone I’ve met at the Foundation has been overwhelmingly supportive and very genuine. It’s a great organization to help tennis thrive and it’s doing a great job with their mission.

“I’m glad [Connelly and Otero] are here. You can’t really explain it or always talk about the different aspects of military life and what you deal with. We don’t have to tell each other; they already know. It sets you at ease because you know you’re not going to be judged.”

Being around other veterans with similar backgrounds is one of the cornerstones of the Foundation’s outreach, which has impacted more than 200,000 service members, veterans and their families through Wounded Warrior tennis trainings, Warrior and Family Tennis days and Military Appreciation events at the US Open and Emirates Airline US Open Series.

Family life is especially important to Otero, 34, a father of 4-year-old twins from Crested Butte, Colo. And after serving as a ballperson this year in New York, he hopes to take his new love of tennis back to his children.

A combat photographer, Otero received injuries to his abdomen in December 2009 from multiple blast exposures. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide in 2010, but later used the healing power of sports to begin the mental and physical road back to health.

“After leaving the Air Force, they introduced me to sports as a part of recovery,” said Otero. “I’d gone through a very traumatic beginning to my recovery that involved a lot of pills and a lot of chemical substances and so when the federal government tried to reintroduce me to sport, I said I’d give it a shot. Some of the other things weren’t working or helping me move forward.

“I’m surrounded by a family of brothers and sisters who have been hurt either mentally or physically or a combination of the two. Once I discovered the healing power of sport and started to leverage that as my primary tool of recovery, I absolutely noticed a dramatic change. I didn’t feel as depressed or as angry or anxious as I did. That bond through sport with each other has really carried all of us forward in a positive way. I’m absolutely hooked on tennis and I’ve been telling people to teach me so I can teach my twin 4-year-olds. I want them to know tennis.”

At 27 years old, Connelly is the youngest of the trio. A staff sergeant in the National Guard of the U.S. Air Force, Connelly is still on active duty out of Baltimore.

He was in a motorcycle accident in 2011 that left his left leg severely damaged and needing amputation. He has been wearing a prosthetic leg for five years and built his own leg for this year’s US Open. Originally from Baltimore, Md., but now living in Tampa Fla., Connelly says he has learned to embrace his injury.

“Before, I was kind of ashamed of my injury because I wasn’t injured overseas and [Otero and Kieffer] basically gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “Being around these guys and experience this together, I realized that everybody gets hurt, but it’s about how you overcome it and the adversities and challenges that you face. That’s what makes you the person that you are.

“Sport gives me a sense of purpose and a sense of drive. It gives me something to accomplish. My passion is fitness and the fact I can inspire others with what I do and with my disability or lack thereof is special because someone can look at me and say, ‘Wow, he’s doing it, I can do it now.’ If I can live my passion and it can inspire others, then I’m living a great life.”

The three veterans consider each other close lifelong friends and have another, less standard tie: ink and fruit.

During a trip to Hawaii, another friend in their group decided to take a bite out of a pineapple. The friends passed it around the table, each taking a bite of it. The next summer in Vegas, they each got tattoos of a pineapple to remind them of their journey and friendship. For Connelly, it’s all about fitting back into society.

“If you’re doing a great job as a ballperson and not being noticed on the court, nobody knows who you are,” Connelly said. “And that’s what a lot of veterans want. They don’t want to be noticed for their visible injuries or mental injuries or burns. They just want to be able to go the grocery store and be with their kids and be normal. If they can do that, it’s a big plus.

“Every veteran always wants to come back and slide back into society and slide back into the real life. They want to be with their kids and their wife and have that same life they had before, but it’s not always the case. It takes years and years to try and get these vets back into that groove that they once had before. That’s the ultimate goal.”



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