(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta welcomed 50 wounded service men and women who participated in this year’s Warrior Games competition at a recognition ceremony Monday at the Pentagon. The competition is an annual event hosted by the United States Olympic Committee and supported by the Department of Defense.
Five teams of wounded, ill and injured military members and veterans chosen from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command compete with each other, and this year against British soldiers. In Colorado Springs last month, the athletes vied for medals in swimming, archery, track and field, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, shooting, and cycling.
“These men and women, who overcome immense odds to suddenly come and compete in these games, represents, I believe, the strength, the integrity, the character of many American service members who have persevered in the face of huge challenges, challenges that they’ve had to recover from the wounds of war,” said Panetta.
Panetta told the story of Navy Lt. Brad Snyder who was blinded by an IED explosion last year in Afghanistan while serving as a bomb disposal technician. Lt. Snyder competed in last month’s games and won a total of seven gold medals; three in track and four in swimming. Panetta also highlighted Lt. Snyder’s achievement of setting the new world record for vision-impaired athletes in both the 100 meter and the 400 meter freestyle at last week’s U.S. Paralympics swimming trials. He’ll compete in the Paralympics Games in London on Sept. 7 — exactly one year to the day of his injury.
“Brad, we’re all in awe of your determination and your personal spirit,” Panetta said, turning to the young man in the audience. “And all of us are going to be cheering your success in London. God bless you,” he said to crowd applause and cheers.
The secretary then presented each of the 50 athletes with a Secretary of Defense coin, and took an individual picture with the beaming young men and women, as their friends and families applauded. Panetta also thanked the United Services Organization, the Fisher House Foundation, the Semper Fi Fund, Team Semper Fi, Army Homefront Fund and ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff’s Foundation for their work with wounded service men and women and veterans.
The secretary said he will travel to Texas later this week to visit recently wounded military members who are recovering at Brook Army Medical Center. Panetta said he will take the stories of the Wounded Warrior athletes with him to help inspire those service men and women struggling to recover.
“I often meet these extraordinary young men and women just days after they’ve been wounded in battle. In that acute phase of recovery, I know that it’s hard for some to imagine ever competing for an athletic event,” said Panetta. “Yet the will, the sheer guts to overcome the wounds, to overcome the obstacles that face these warrior athletes, their determination to return to a new normal, is not just inspiring; it is nothing short of a miracle.”
Panetta is not the only influential figure to honor the Wounded Warriors. Last month Prince Harry was in Washington as a special guest at a reception honoring the British soldiers who participated in this year’s games for the first time.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Debra Goldschmidt, CNN
Michael Nedelman, CNN
Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN