By Amanda Gabeletto
HOLLIDAYSBURG - When Michael Stafford goes to Hollidaysburg's Tiger Stadium to train, he gets there before the sun rises too high in order to avoid the heat.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Wounded Warrior Michael Stafford works on his start at Tiger Stadium in Hollidaysburg. Stafford, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, has found new purpose in adaptive sports.
Stafford, 28, once avoided the stark reality of
daylight for a different reason. Shutting himself away from the world, the Marine wrestled with severe depression after a traumatic brain injury he suffered in 2008 during combat and basic training in Hawaii.
"He didn't want to associate with people. He didn't want to go anywhere and do anything," said his mom, Delinda O'Neill. "He was severely depressed."
She agreed it was hard as a mom: "Well, yea, when your son was full of life before," she said of Stafford, who at one point wound up in a homeless shelter.
Today, Stafford, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy due to his brain injury and cannot drive or work, is taking his life back, basking in the light of finding his confidence again, in large part due to his getting involved with adaptive sports and the people he's met along the way.
O'Neill, who is her son's caregiver and gets paid part-time through the Veterans Affairs caregiver program, also battled cancer during her son's recovery, receiving help from families from their church, First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg. Originally from Florida, Stafford and his mom live together in Hollidaysburg.
"Oh, my mom is the biggest support that I have," he said. "She's like my biggest cheerleader."
Stafford began his road to recovery trying different activities such as singing and volunteering.
"He really enjoys working with the elderly and just visiting with them and hearing their stories," O'Neill said of her son. He has volunteered at the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home and Presbyterian Village at Hollidaysburg.
In January, an opportunity arose through the Wounded Warrior Project when a seminar on post-traumatic stress disorder was held at Seven Springs.
At the event, veterans were skiing and snowboarding, but doctors and others had told Stafford, a former four-year varsity swimmer and one-time ocean lifeguard, that such activities were off limits because of his head injury, O'Neill said.
After a determined Stafford and instructors, who promised to act as a safety net, reassured a nervous mom, he clipped on a snowboard.
The accomplishment that got them thinking about what else he could do was "so awesome," she said.
Melanie Hook, the wife of Altoona retired Army Sgt. Sean Hook, gave O'Neill the phone number of Teri Jordan, disability recreation programs coordinator for Penn State Ability Athletics, which offers sports including wheelchair basketball and power lifting for athletes with disabilities.
In 2012, Jordan helped train Hook for his first Wounded Warrior Games, a partnership between the Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee?Paralympic Military Program.
Adaptive sports are for anyone with a disability, including those in wheelchairs and amputees, Sean Hook said in an email. He brought home the gold in discus, silver in seated volleyball, a bronze in archery, and placed fourth in shot put in the 2013 games.
Hook, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury and suffered an injury to his left shoulder, is happy "to help any one of any age get started," he said. He would like to start a program at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center.
Hook met Stafford through the VA.
"Mike's accomplishments to date are outstanding. He has taken an opportunity and ran with it. He has made several leaps in his recovery since we first met," Hook said. "Though we are told our injuries are permanent, we find ways to adapt through these sports. Mike is a great example of how sports rehabilitation can help with injured soldiers."
Through Penn State's Wounded Warriors outreach program, Stafford attended a swim clinic and meet in February. He was invited as part of Team Semper Fi to the Wounded Warriors game trials in March in California.
Team Semper Fi is part of The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit helping members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, according to its website at semperfifund.org.
"Me being on Team Semper Fi has made [a] huge, huge change in my life ... I have goals to go toward, look toward," Stafford said. "We all support each other. It's a huge brotherhood so we're all there with each other regardless of what sport we're doing."
While Stafford didn't qualify to compete in the Warrior Games with limited time to train, he recently won a gold medal in the 100- and 200-meter track, a silver in seated volleyball and a bronze in triathlon at the 2013 UCO Endeavor Games held at the University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, Okla.
Hook got a gold medal in shot put there.
At the Endeavor Games, Stafford, who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and has dropped to 208 pounds, also received a classification for the 2016 U.S. Paralympics.
Stafford, who attended a triathlon camp in Florida in April and competed in one in New Jersey in May, trains almost every day, choosing one day off a week, he said.
He planned to compete in a track meet at the YMCA on Saturday.
At the Wounded Warriors game trial, Stafford not only met a support system and friends, but learned the words "Etiam in Pugna," which means "still in the fight," he said.
The definition reminded him that regardless of his circumstances, he is still fighting to better himself, he said.
Since first becoming a Marine, Stafford has carried with him the card with the words honor, courage and commitment on it that all Marines get, he said. In the Corps, he was taught to adapt and overcome, and he is carrying on with those core values.
"I see my future as ... being an athlete right now. Traveling. Training. Pushing myself to the limits. Eating healthy," he said. "I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for God, who opened all the doors for me to be able to walk through them, and all the people that I've met. ... So that's where I see myself, is being an athlete."
Adaptive sports have given Stafford his confidence back and because he is feeling good he is dealing with the hurdles he still faces in a positive way, O'Neill said.
The sports have also given O'Neill her son back.
"His whole attitude has improved drastically in the past six months. He's much more positive. He's had a lot less anxiety issues. He hasn't had seizures in about five months," she said. "He's just got a purpose and he's on a mission, and he's got a goal and he's just going to go for it. The way he is now, this is the child I brought up."
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.