Wounded Warriors in San Antonio competed in the 2012 Shamrock American Hero Power Classic Sunday at Freeman Coliseum.
Seventeen strong men and women hustled and grunted their way through rigorous powerlifting, squats, bench presses and deadlifts. Four also competed in an "adapted" Military Strongman event that featured a weighted farmers walk, 450-pound tire flip, a duffel bag shuffle where competitors tossed a duffel bag filled with 175 pounds of sand over a 50-inch bar for as many times as they could manage, and an axle deadlift outfitted with two Toyota Tundra Truck tires weighing 250 pounds.
The event is the brainstorm of two-time World's Strongest Woman champion, Jill Mills, and Spero Tshontikidis, director of Educational Services at the Wounded Warriors Project in San Antonio.
Zech Gray and Evan Hudec are two warriors who became involved in the competition through the Track program of the San Antonio Wounded Warriors Project.
Every six weeks the Wounded Warrior Project enrolls a new cohort of injured soldiers to go through their 12-month-long transitional program.
Track works out the warriors' minds and bodies. Participants are enrolled in a local junior college and are also required to train with Brandy Vela in the gym three times a week. Vela is the regional coordinator of health and wellness at the Wounded Warriors Project. She also held her own powerlifting at the Power Classic next to the warriors.
Evan, who is a veteran of the 1st Armored Division and the 3rd Infantry Division and served two tours in Iraq, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"I got blown up a couple of times. I was a tanker," he says.
The grisly details of an episode with a suicide bomber stick with him.
"I don't remember ever being scared over there that much. I remember being really, really angry that the lousy s.o.b. had been too much of a coward to fight me. That he was going to blow himself up and deny me the privilege of shooting him," Evan recalls.
He brings along Apollo, a PTSD service dog that helps to calm Evan when he is in a crowd. Evan calls him his "battle buddy".
"He watches my back," says Evan. "He really helps with my sleep."
The world of power-lifting/strongman event is a new experience for Evan.
"It's something I hadn't ever done before, and I've been trying to challenge myself. I have to be careful about my back and my knee, but I can bench-press," says Evan. "I'm never going to win a competition versus anybody else, but I'm going to try to beat myself. I have a record and I'm going to try to beat my record."
He says before he became involved in the program he never left his apartment. That would be almost three years. During the strongman competition, he completes the farmers walk, lugging 170-pound weights in each hand for 60 feet. Then, he turns around and joins the rallying cry for competitor Megan Oconan.
Since Evan enrolled in the Track program he says his cholesterol and blood pressure levels have dropped, and with that improved physical wellness has come an improved self image.
He is studying history with a focus in anthropology at Northwest Vista College. He hopes to be a cultural consultant someday.
While serving in an artillery division of the Army, Zech Gray was injured in Baghdad, Iraq in 2008. "I'm not saying I'm a full-blown Texan, but I love Texas," says Zech. Zech got his ideas about Texas from his grandfather who loved old John Wayne movies.
all tumbleweeds and horses.
Zech had extensive burn injuries for which he has undergone about 120 surgeries.
"Some thing people don't understand, or they won't get the concept of, is that when you're injured, regardless if you are burned or an amputee, you may have a point in your life where, like me, I really dreaded looking in the mirror because before the cosmetic surgery made me look like Denzel Washington, I considered myself very disfigured, " says Zech. "I had countless surgeries to get certain parts here and certain parts there right. To a point to me where I'm not the same, and if I'm not the same, then I'm not the person I used to be."
Zech admits anger also plays a role in his trauma, anger about what he could have done, or done better. He says he is not angry at anyone, just angry about the situation.
But some of that may be alleviated when he goes to the gym and that sense that someone else has gone through something similar.
"Oh, there are Marines here, and there's Army. We may have Air Force personnel. But, we're all family here. So we've all been over there. We went through some kind of trouble, some kind of trauma. We all have some kind of connection that brings us together while we're here," he says.
That sentiment expands to include the staff of the Wounded Warriors Project.
"Even though this is their job, we still feel they are part of us because without them none of this would be possible," he says.
Zech says he will continue to compete at athletic events like the Shamrock American Hero Classic even after he graduates from the Track program this summer. He says it's because of the physical challenge, but mostly because of them: the other cohorts and the staff of trainers and counselors at the Wounded Warrior Project.
She [Brandy] always wants to bring the best out of us," says Zech. "For a little person with so much energy, she has a lot of hope for us. There's a lot of love there, but at the same time her job is to make sure we are at a physical place that we area comfortable with."
Zech's next goal, besides looking like Samson, is to lose about 15 more pounds.
He has some advice to wounded soldiers returning home for a much-deserved break.
"Don't sit at home and dream about things you want to do. You want to make things happen," he says.
For Zech that includes studying graphic design, as well as competing, connecting and 'talking trash' with other Wounded Warriors.
The Wounded Warriors Project is a non-profit organization that is solely supported by private donations.