When shrapnel tore through Navy Master at Arms A.J. Mohammed’s eardrum in May 2004 in combat near Iraq, in an instant, his future was changed.
He suffered traumatic brain injury and was left with vision impairment, hearing loss and paralysis on the left side of his face.
After nearly two years in the hospital, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, native finally went home. Yet, suffering from severe agoraphobia, he walled himself off from the world, terrified of being around people, out in public places such as malls, even parks.
Now, in a triumph of will over his old fears, Mohammed plans to take part in the Defense Department’s annual Warrior Games, a Paralympics-style competition being held this year in Chicago June 30-July 8. He’ll compete in archery, track, field and cycling events in front of thousands of people.
In all, 265 veterans who have been seriously wounded, ill or injured will compete at venues in accessible places around the city including Soldier Field, the United Center, the Museum Campus, McCormick Place, Lane Tech College Prep and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Mohammed is part of the Navy’s team in the games.
He’s excited about “just tearing it up on the straightaways as people are cheering your name. I will probably remember that experience the rest of my life — to be able to feel and absorb that, the energy of the city of Chicago, my family, my friends.”
The Warrior Games began in 2010. This is the first time, though, they are being held anywhere other than a military installation or former Olympics facility. The events are mostly free and open to the public.
The Navy and Defense Department decided to bring the games to Chicago this year because of the availability of top facilities, accessible lodgings and the recreational offerings the city offers, according to Navy Capt. Brent Breining, a Naperville native who’s the Warrior Games’ director.
“We wanted to bring it into middle America, into a metropolitan area, outside the gate line of a base to tell these stories,” says Breining.
The opening ceremony will be July 1 at Soldier Field, hosted by Jon Stewart and featuring performances by Kelly Clarkson and Blake Shelton, with ticket prices of $40 to $80. It also will feature stories of “wounded warriors,” Breining says.
Congress passed a law providing support for the military’s Warrior Care program starting in 2006, and each branch of the military runs its own version of it. Sponsors including Boeing and the Fisher House Foundation help offset the costs.
Athletes initially take part in adaptive athletic reconditioning camps. Then, they go through several stages of preparation before competition, according to Breining. There’s an introductory camp and a building camp. Then, the athletes go through selection trials that choose who will compete on each branch’s team.
The athletes represent the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Special Operations. This year’s competition also will feature a British team, taking part for the sixth year in a row, and an Australian team making its first appearance.
Teams prepare for the games at focus camps. Teamwork, rather than competition, differentiates the Warrior Games from events like the Paralympics, Breining says. Athletes are allowed to compete for two years.
After competing this year, Mohammed plans to move on and train for a chance to compete in the 2020 Paralympics.
The Navy Safe Harbor program got him started. It sent him to a training camp, which brought him to his first round of games in 2015. That training camp saved his life, Mohammed says.
“I think the serotonin levels that I endured just being around other vets like me, people who shared the same blood and mud, or people who were going through the same struggles that I went through fed into my motivation of competition and healing through sports,” he says.
For the week of the games, the Chicago Park District has a “hero” theme for its summer camps, Breining says, and plans to bring 1,700 children enrolled in the camps to several events.
“Kids will love it,” says Grace Mohammed, Mohammed’s wife and caregiver. “And adults will find the meaning behind it.”