E CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO --
The popping sound from a paintball marker sent chills down his spine.
The marker, an air-powered device used to shoot paintballs, malfunctioned making a rapid popping sound. The sound would normally inspire any avid paintballer to make his move against the player experiencing the malfunction during a game, but the sound was too familiar for Lance Cpl. Elmer Ugarte, 21, a former machine gunner who served with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, while deployed to Iraq.
Paintball is an extreme sport in which participants eliminate opponents from play by hitting them with paintballs shot from a compressed-gas-powered “marker.”
Ugarte and 14 other wounded warriors recovering from combat-related injuries were given an opportunity to play paintball for free, at Mr. Paintball USA in Escondido, Calif., Nov. 16.
The event was held as part of the Naval Medical Center San Diego Athletic Complex’s Warrior Athlete Program, which is designed to assist wounded warriors in their rehabilitation and to help renew their quality of life.
“Recreation plays a huge role in (the wounded warriors’) physical and emotional recovery,” said Doug Droback, sports and aquatics coordinator, NMCSD. “Not only is it morale boosting, but it helps them learn to live with their disabilities.”
As early as a few months ago, some of the wounded warriors were serving in the streets of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting the Global War on Terrorism.
Some of these Marines were wounded by enemy bullets, and many were injured during improvised explosive device attacks. Some of the wounded warriors have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, which can occur after living through a traumatic event, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“When we first organized the (paintball game), we were unsure how the (wounded warriors) would react,” said Marla Knox, executive director, San Diego Adaptive Sports Foundation. “They were really quiet at first, but they later came out of their shells and began to enjoy it.”
An anxiety disorder, PTSD can cause victims to relive past events; loud noises can bring back memories of explosions, or for Ugarte, the sound of a paintball marker brought back memories of gunfire.
Ugarte, a native of San Diego, said he began playing paintball two years ago as a way to bond with his brother. This was his first time playing since he was shot in the chest by a sniper while patrolling Karmah, Iraq, on July 23.
“I never saw the man who shot me,” said Ugarte. “Since then, I have always been on guard and felt like someone was out to get me,” said Ugarte.
The surgery from Ugarte’s wound left a scar from his sternum to several inches below his naval. He had to wear padding on his chest for protection from the paintball impacts.
“I was a little jumpy when we first got there, but after a while, the (paintball markers) didn’t sound like real weapons at all,” said Ugarte, who used his brother’s paintball marker during the day at Mr. Paintball USA. “Paintball can be similar to war because of the fact that you’re shooting at each other. The difference is that nobody dies, and one mistake won’t cost you your life. Paintball has helped some of that paranoia go away and has helped me realize that I’m safe now.”