Billy Demby travels to Walter Reed Medical Center to coach their wheelchair basketball team two times a week for two hours at a time. Demby, a Vietnam veteran and bilateral amputee himself, coached the All-Marine wheelchair basketball team to win gold in the 2010 Inaugural Warrior Games before starting with Walter Reed a couple years back.
The 2011 Walter Reed wheelchair basketball team is one of many participating in the Wounded Worrier Project. The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit organization founded in 2002 dedicated to honoring and empowering wounded warriors. Walter Reed’s team is also one of three teams who have participated in the U.S. Armed Forces Wheelchair Basketball Game two times since the game’s inaugural event last year.
This year’s U.S. Armed Forces Wheelchair Basketball Game was played Thursday, March 31 at American University’s Bender Arena and Demby’s Walter Reed players took the court against the National Rehabilitation Hospital Ambassadors.
A couple years ago, Demby got a call from the head of Disabled Sports USA and was asked to come on-board as the Walter Reed wheelchair basketball coach. “It’s been a great experience,” Demby said of his time with Walter Reed. “For me, it’s giving something back.”
Before joining Walter Reed as the wheelchair basketball coach, Demby taught skiing for Disabled Sports USA. Demby has taught over 100 veterans and their family members to ski. The skiing lessons combined with a constantly rotating roster of Walter Reed Wheelchair Basketball players has taught Demby a valuable lesson — how to have patience.
“Many of these guys who leave here, if they don’t participate will go home and stay home. Their lives sort of come an end in the sense that they’re just hanging at home,” Demby said.
“Getting them out in the public, teaching them how to ski, teaching them how to play basketball … it helps the rehabilitation [so] they go on to bigger and better things.”
Demby’s greatest challenge while practicing with the Walter Reed squad is due to the unfortunate side effect of memory loss and brain trauma experienced by the veteran players.
“Because they have multiple disabilities and a lot of brain trauma, they forget [things]. So whatever I teach today, I may have to teach tomorrow and the next day and the next day, so it gets repetitious a lot.”
That’s when Demby turns to patience.
“What we do is […] no matter what I teach, I go back and teach the basics.”
For example, one time Demby’s team got a new player. The guy came in for the first time and had lost two legs and a hand. Demby thought to himself, “How the hell am I gonna teach him wheelchair basketball?”
Demby stuck to the basics and, as he likes to tell the story, that player got right into the game and just started pushing. “[That] inspires me, which also inspires [the players].”
Kenneth “Maze” Marshall is a former U.S. Paralympic Gold Medalist and veteran who spoke on behalf of his fellow veterans before Thursday night’s game. Maze is part of a group of Americans who can honestly say they hit rock bottom at an age where most people are still applying for their first job in a 9 to 5 world.
At the age of 22, he became paralyzed from the waist down. He fell from a helicopter during an operation in the Korean Peninsula in 1987. That’s not even the worst part. After that, his wife left him, he went bankrupt, and the VA kept giving him the run around. It took the VA nearly five years to settle his claim, during which time Maze was forced to eat two to three times a week for five years just to live. This left Maze mentally, physical, and emotionally exhausted.
“It was hard for me to see people saying, ‘Oh we love the soldiers.’ They’d wag the flags, but [they were] just wagging a flag,” he said. There was no action. “Where’s the love?,” he asked.
All wounded veterans like Maze want is to feel appreciated by their country for their service and devotion to America.
Maze dedicated his renewed passion for life after becoming a paraplegic to his faith in God, but there’s actually another man responsible for the motivational change. And to think, Maze doesn’t even know the man’s name.
He was still in his twenties at the time and had started receiving the paralyzed veteran magazine, Paraplegic News.
“I saw a picture of a guy [with the] same level injury as me [who] was a fifth degree black belt in karate [and] I said, ‘Okay. How the hell did you do that?”
Maze never became a fifth degree black belt but he did go on to participate in what he says is just about every wheelchair sport ever devised. From basketball to skiing, table tennis to pool and even marathons, Maze has since retired from the world of wheelchair sports and speaks occasionally to groups of students and fellow veterans – even though he describes himself as not being a public speaker.
“When stuff like that happens to you I think you have the duty to God and mankind to share it so people can get some kind of hope,” Maze said.
Thursday night’s second annual U.S. Armed Forces Wheelchair Basketball Game spread the story of numerous veterans to the eyes and ears of college students, veteran’s family members, current members of the U.S. Armed Forces and community members.
Among those community members, 21-year-old George Washington University junior and Manchester-native George Williams received the first-ever Stone and Holt Weeks Humanitarian Award at half time.
The Stone and Holt Weeks Humanitarian Award, conceived by the Theta Eta chapter of the Pi Kappa Phi at American University, honors the memory of two brothers (Stone, 24 and Holt, 20) who were killed by a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 81 in Virginia in 2009.
Stone and Holt grew up in North Bethesda and were “super-active members of St. Columbia’s Church in Washington.” While attending the University of Delaware, Stone was a founding father of the university’s Pi Kappa Phi chapter. Both boys are remembered for the passion for life and for giving back to their community.
Williams earned the honor due to his successful attempts to raise funding for disabled Americans. Stone and Holt’s parents Linton and Jan Taylor Weeks were in attendance at Thursday evening’s event and presented to Williams in person.
“I feel incredibly overwhelmed and honored and also as if I’m not worthy of this because the work that Stone and Holt did, it’s incredible,” Williams said of receiving the award.
Maze agreed with Williams’ thoughts. “How [do] you lose your only two sons and [stand] here in front of all of us, telling us about it. You know … that’s …wow. We owe it to God and others to share [and to] let folks know ‘Hey, there’s hope.’”
The organizers of the evening were no older than the Weeks brothers. In fact, they are all still in college. The members of the Theta Eta chapter of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at American University first conceived the U.S. Armed Forces Wheelchair Game last year.
The event was developed by 2009 Philanthropy Chairman James Fine. Fine came up with the idea after reading an article about a semi-annual wheelchair basketball game hosted in a nearby hospital for wounded service men and woman. After visiting the program’s website, he e-mailed the USOC Paralympic Military Program and teamed up with them to create the U.S. Armed Forces Wheelchair Basketball Game.
All proceeds from the event go directly to charity and will be split between Pi Kappa Phi’s philanthropy Push America, which is a non-profit to serve people with disabilities, and the Wounded Warrior Project.
“I got to see that the younger generation still loves their country and supports their veterans [Thursday night]. You don’t [always] get to see that. That’s rare, ‘cuz most kids in college [are] in college. That’s their ‘about me’ [time], but not these kids,” Maze said.
To donate to Push America and the Wounded Warrior Project, please do so online.