SUNY Cobleskill Track and Field head coach: Never say ‘Can’t’

from the UUP Voice September/October issue, by Darryl McGrath –  One of the first things Brad Fichthorn learned as a coach in the Department of Defense Warrior Games is that many combat injuries are invisible. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be as disabling as an amputation from a roadside bomb. Combat inflicts many kinds of scars.

The other thing he learned: No matter how seriously injured a service member might be on the outside, no matter how wounded inside, Fichthorn, a UUP member at Cobleskill, never heard any of these military athletes say, “I can’t” even as they faced daunting feats: swimming races – and winning – without legs. Drawing an archery bow and hitting the target at dead-center despite the loss of fingers and, in some cases, arms. Letting teammates know they can count on you, even though you don’t always feel that you can count on yourself.

“You might hear the words, ‘I can’t,’ but it’s always followed by, ‘Yet,”‘ said Fichthorn, who completed his third summer coaching throwing events at the nationally renowned Warrior Games in June. The competition always takes place at a military base or service academy. The United States Military Academy at West Point hosted this year’s event for 250 former and active-duty service members.

The games draw soldier athletes from all over the country who have physical or psychological injuries incurred during their service. Not all of the injuries are from combat. Motor vehicle accidents while on active duty account for some; others happened in the course of carrying out duties that would be considered hazardous by any measure, but which the soldiers considered simply part of their mission. Fichthorn recalled a soldier who fell from a transmission tower she had climbed at her post in South Korea to help with a repair, and severely injured her back. To his astonished comments that she tackled such a dangerous task, the soldier explained that the job needed to be done, and she was the one in charge of doing it.

“One of the things that most people don’t realize is the number of women who have been injured,” Fichthorn said. The ban on women serving in combat was lifted after most of the soldiers competing in this summer’s Warrior Games had been injured, but, as Fichthorn learned, many of the jobs military women have been doing all along – as medics, military police officers or convoy drivers – carry the risk of extreme injury from surprise attacks or roadside bombs.

For all competitors, the Warrior Games aim to instill confidence and camaraderie. Recovering service members draw on the military values of teamwork and personal best, as well as the tradition that no wounded soldier should ever be left behind on the battlefield.

Fichthorn saw those values demonstrated time and again, as competitors encouraged their teammates, nonchalantly dealt with crippling injuries and artificial limbs, or overcame psychological and physical pain during an event. Some of these athletes will return to active duty; many are too injured to do so. The games are one part of a long-range effort to help soldiers, no matter which direction they are heading. Military psychologists are on hand to work with the competitors, as well as coaches like Fichthorn.

Fichthorn, a UUP member and associate professor who teaches sports management and is also the Cobleskill head coach for track and field, got involved with the Warrior Games through a former student who transferred to Southeastern Louisiana State University several years ago. That student’s new coach contacted Fichthorn, who specialized in throwing events in track and field in his own college days, and encouraged him to try coaching the Warrior Games. That was three summers ago. Fichthorn has never served in the military, but he now considers the Warrior Games a long-term commitment. And he is using that experience to explore ways to heighten awareness of veterans in his own community and on his campus. One idea: Modeling a smaller, more local upstate New York event on the Warrior Games.

New York is part of a group of eight states that has the second-highest veteran population in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. States in that category have been 551,000 and 950,000 resident veterans. But UUP almost certainly does not have an accurate picture or even an estimate of how many veterans are in its membership, said Justin Culkowski, who, along with William Borgstede, co-chairs the union’s Veterans Affairs Committee. That’s because veterans often do not identify themselves.

Culkowski said he wished more UUP veteran members would realize that the union can be a source of good advice to them on special benefits available to veterans, such as pension credits. Veterans can also display special tassels on their academic regalia. The Veterans Affairs Committee can provide information on that and on other activities that afford veteran unionists pride and solidarity. “Our committee does a lot of good work, but a member who talks about an experience like this brings an awareness of veterans and their tremendous sacrifices to an even wider audience,” Culkowski said.

Fichthorn has found other outlets for his interest in supporting veterans. For the third year in a row, he will help out this September at the Patriot Highlander Challenge, a timed obstacle course event held annually in Cobleskill that supports charities working with disabled veterans, civilian adults and children. This year, the event’s guest of honor will be Army infantry veteran and double amputee Sgt. Ryan Major, whom Fichthorn met at the Warrior Games. Fichthorn plans to continue working with recovering veterans. The chance invitation he accepted three summers ago has opened up a world that’s teaching him new lessons about life, determination and courage. Said Fichthorn, “The word ‘honor’ is not something I use much, but to work with these veterans is an honor, it’s a privilege, it’s me giving back.”

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