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Fri Sep 18, 2020
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Walter Reed patients 'up in arms' over unique clinic

Walter Reed patients 'up in arms' over unique clinic

Source: Michael E. Dukes

A clinic - sponsored by the U.S. Paralympics and with cooperation from Walter Reed's Moral, Welfare and Recreation office, and Occupational Therapy Clinic - introduced wheelchair fencing to Walter Reed patients.

Most of the patients were at a loss for words when they first walked into the gym and saw two champion Paralympic fencers, Mario Rodriguez and Gary Vanderwege, feverishly thrusting and parrying foils and epees back and forth while sitting in wheelchairs.

The fencers sat in low-back sports wheelchairs that offered maximum maneuverability and stability. The chairs where clamped into a special floor bracket to hold them in place at just over an extended foil length apart.

While gripping a rail across the back of the chair, the fencers bucked the chairs back and forth, leaning into and away from attacks against their opponent. In a matter of split seconds, attacks and counterattacks were waged. Sometimes the defending parry would spare a fencer by mere fractions of an inch.

While dueling with foils or epees, fencers must successfully touch their opponent with the tip of their weapons to register a hit. When armed with sabers, a successful slash on an opponent's target area is all that is needed.

An electronic signal box lights up when a successful hit is registered, but many times, opposing hits are so close together that a judge will call the first hit and award a point to the appropriate person.

When asked if they would try the sport during the clinic, most of patients answered quickly, "No." Whether they weren't confident they could do it or were still perplexed with the possibilities, they seemed reluctant to "step up" and try it.

Having been in their position, Vanderwege wasn't about to take no for an answer. He seemed to believe the Soldiers were up to the task and that they would enjoy the experience.

Despite saying earlier that he didn't think fencing was for him, Sgt.

1st Class Denis Viau, a Soldier wounded in Iraq, allowed Vanderwege to help him don a protective fencing coat. He then wheeled over to the sparring area, hopped into one of the fencing wheelchairs, and put on a facemask. James C. Murray handed him a weapon and instructed him on the basics.

"The sport is good for a person new to the chair because the participants are stationary," said Murray, a fencing coach for the U.S.

Paralympic team and the Johns Hopkins University Women's Fencing Team.

"The thrust, parry and feign are similar to Army tactics," he added.

After several minutes of clumsily attacking and dodging his opponent, Viau began to get the hang of it and started scoring points against him. When the bout was over and he removed his facemask, Viau had a look of renewed confidence and a slight smile on his face.

"I thought it was good - interesting - and something else other amps or disabled people can do," Viau said, though he admitted the sport wasn't for him. He said that he wants to return to his duty station at Fort Lewis, Wash., where he hopes to continue serving in the 1st Striker Brigade.

John F. Register, a U.S. Paralympic athlete and former Soldier who served in Iraq said to the audience, "The only thing that limits me or holds me back is my mind. Not this ..." He then reached down lifted his pant leg up to show his C-leg prosthetic.

The Paralympic Games is the second largest sporting event in the world

- second to the Olympic Games - showcasing the talents of over 4,000 elite athletes with physical disabilities from over 130 countries.

Athletes compete in around 500 medal events in 18 sports. They

include: archery, athletics, boccia, cycling, equestrian, goalball, judo, powerlifting, sailing, shooting, soccer, swimming, table tennis, volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis.

The U.S. Paralympics is a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee and is dedicated to becoming the world leader in the Paralympic sports movement and promoting excellence in the lives of all persons with physical disabilities.

For more information about the U.S. Paralympics, visit


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