The camaraderie and the competition.
It’s a combination that keeps veterans coming back year after year. And entices more and more to join them.
People like Blaine 70-year-old Ken Klein, who in his 10th year participating took home two gold medals and three silvers at this year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Louisville, Kentucky, the largest wheelchair sporting event in the world.
“The camaraderie is unbelievable,” Klein said. “You get to see people from throughout the country that become friends. It’s challenging and very competitive. Even though we’re out there to have fun and get into the community, there’s still definitely competition.
“It’s a six-day event and we take over two or three hotels by the convention centers. The cities that host the event really put out the red carpet for us and really do a phenomenal job.”
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been held annually since 1981, when it was launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs with 77 athletes in seven events. Four decades later, those numbers are now at over 600 veterans participating in 20 events and counting, with Klein now a 10-year regular.
“We put a team together in Minnesota every year and normally send about 20 guys and gals,” Klein said. “People can participate in up to five events out of the 20 offered, so I make sure I participate in my max five events each year.
“The camaraderie and the getting out and meeting people and competing in the various events bring me back. It’s just an outstanding event. We have teams coming in from all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In Louisville, we had 650 athletes. It’s quite the event and it gets larger every year.”
At this year’s Games, Klein earned gold medals in weightlifting and trapshooting, as well as silver medals in softball, bowling and table tennis.
The Games provide an event to train for, while encouraging active lifestyles throughout the year.
“I used to play softball before I was injured and I took up trapshooting after I was injured,” Klein said. “I’ve always bowled, and I have a personal trainer I work out with once a week weightlifting.
“I bowl once or twice a week and I trapshoot once a week. Our trapshooting team of Paralyzed Veterans of America compete in three or four trapshooting events throughout the country. Not bad for a 70-year-old!”
Klein served in the U.S. Navy from 1967-1971 and was in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.
In 2001, he suffered a catastrophic injury due to a small airplane crash out of Crystal Airport. He and his partner were heading to Rapid City, S.D. on a business trip when their plane lost all the oil in the engine from an unfortunate mechanical situation. Klein declared an emergency and ended up crashing through a corn field in St. Bonifacius.
“That’s what broke my back,” Klein said. “I was pretty lucky considering. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) interviewed me in the hospital and he said that only 5 percent of all general aviation people survive a crash. Even though it changed my life, it also gave me an opportunity to enrich my life moving forward.”
Klein has taken on a leadership role on behalf of fellow veterans, serving as President of Minnesota’s chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. There are 33 chapters throughout the country, with Minnesota holding a chapter of its own.
“We have about 350 members within the state of Minnesota,” Klein said. “Our organization is a leading advocate for quality health care for our members and ensuring all members receive the benefits which are available to them as a result of their military service. Being catastrophically injured individuals, there are certain medical and social needs that we have and the VA understands and helps us with those needs. That’s why the Paralyzed Veterans of America co-sponsor the National Veterans Wheelchair Games along with the VA.”
While lifestyles are changed as a result of severe injuries, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the organizations that support them strive to help veterans remain as active and successful as possible.
“You just get out and do what you can instead of sitting on a couch,” Klein said. “I’ve had a pretty good life these past 20 years. I’ve met some great, great friends.”