There is one thing these men all have in common: they went through hell and came out stronger. They are Invictus.
At 24, corporal Eugen Pătru had to learn to walk again. He remembers the hardest test: standing in front of the sink to brush his teeth. “I still keep that pair of sneakers”, Pătru says. The now 27 year-old was one of the wounded warriors representing Romania at its first participation in the Invictus Games.
Thirty-one wounded servicemen answered the call to be part of the Invictus Team Romania. Fifteen of them competed in Toronto at the end of September 2017, against 16 other nations in what was the most impressive competition any of them had ever witnessed. They covered six disciplines: athletics, archery, powerlifting, indoor rowing, cycling and sitting volleyball.
They prepared for the games for months. The trainings were not easy and sweat did not come cheap for these men. Their efforts were doubled by pain, health conditions – a splinter here and there – and, in some cases, even age. But they felt the need to send a message: they may have been wounded, but they are still fighting.
“I gained self-confidence”, Pătru says, who found himself again as an archer. “I can do something even with my legs’ condition, I can do sports. I missed that. I felt useless.” On March 30th, 2014, a suicide vehicle detonated next to the Romanian squad on a patrol mission on the A1 highway in Afghanistan. The blast threw the young corporal to the ground. When he wasn’t able to get back on his feet, his first thought went to an invalid friend, his now Invictus teammate Ionuț Butoi, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Pătru looked at his legs and tried to move them. As they moved, he started to believe that he would one day walk again. Twenty-six surgeries later he did.
“We are Invictus in our everyday life”, says sergeant first class Ionuț Butoi. “The fact that I moved on after the accident defines me as Invictus. It defines us all.”
Sports can play an important role in the wounded warriors’ recovery, both physical and psychological. A training schedule keeps them busy. An activity gives them purpose. And what seems even more important for them, it allows them to serve their country once again through the Invictus Games.
“It felt like the country put its trust in me once again”, says major Laurențiu Șerban, the team captain. Ever since the incident in Afghanistan, in 2006, that led to the amputation of his right leg, Șerban has lived the Invictus spirit. He did not have a name for it at the time, but all he ever did was try to do things like before. He strived to outdo himself, to prove that he is capable, even when people told him otherwise.
Like Șerban, many believe they were given a new mission. It might be a different one, but still they do their best to complete it. And just like a military mission, this one comes at a cost too.
“‘Daddy, why do you have to go to Bucharest again? Please don’t leave!’ When those words come out of your 5-year-old’s mouth, it breaks your heart,” says master sergeant Dumitru Paraschiva. He suffered a head injury in Afghanistan on January 3rd, 2009, and was put in an induced coma until February 23rd. Doctors had advised against heavy effort, but he wanted to be a part of the Invictus team. Almost every week Paraschiva, father of two, packed his workout gear and drove more than 200 kilometres to the country’s capital, Bucharest, for his indoor rowing training.
“I was one of the lucky ones, I live in Bucharest”, says Șerban, “but for my colleagues living in different cities it was difficult being apart from their families for so long”. Șerban recalls visiting Paraschiva’s daughters one time when he was passing through their home town of Făgăraș, while their father was training in Bucharest. “They missed him so. They stayed glued to me for the whole time just because they knew I was a colleague of their father’s.”
Later on, seeing their loved ones compete in Toronto brought a tremendous joy to all the families. “I’ve never been so happy. Except when our daughter was born, but that was completely different”, says Elena Bida of the time her husband, master sergeant Ionel Bida, qualified for two swimming finals.
“Before the Invictus Games I thought I’d seen it all”, says major Nicolae Grigore, Bida’s swimming colleague. Grigore, who also competed in powerlifting, alongside command sergeant major Eugen Mănăilă, wasn’t the only team member mesmerised by what he saw at the games. To see so many people, fellow wounded warriors with disabilities and severe health conditions, compete, be independent and enjoy life, left a deep mark on them all. “They knew how to live their life. It was awesome”, says Paraschiva.
The Romanian team brought home four medals, but that’s not what counts the most. The most important thing at the Invictus Games is to finish the race. The hundreds or thousands in the audience made that crystal clear with every occasion: no sportsman was cheered on more than the one who would finish last. The crowd would just go wild.
“Even if you felt beat, the moment you heard the crowd cheer, you’d be at 120% again”, says master sergeant Irinel Matei who competed in cycling. Everything at the Games made the competitors feel nothing short of real athletes, “true sportsmen who, away from the battlefield, proved they can fight in the sporting arena as well”, says Grigore.
“I felt important again for the first time since the incident”, says staff sergeant Bogdan Dragomir, one of the three team members competing in athletics. Dragomir was wounded in Afghanistan on May 7th, 2016, when an Afghan police officer opened fire inside a police base. He suffered two gunshot wounds and lost two of his fellow soldiers that day. When he came back home, he could not talk about it. At parties he would stay silent in a corner, without being aware he was not the soul of the party anymore. “The Invictus project changed me”, says Dragomir. “I was able to open up to the guys and talk to them about what had happened.”
And then something else happened. Dragomir found his future godfather among his teammates. When he got married on September 16th this year, corporal Valentin Ciolan and his wife were by the newlyweds’ side, becoming their spiritual parents. “This year in Toronto I was only a substitute, so becoming Dragomir’s godfather was my greatest happiness in this project”, says Ciolan. “We became family.”
“Invictus is a family, it’s about getting to know each other, about knowing each other’s problems, helping and supporting one another”, sergeant first class Cătălin Pârvu says. But true friendship comes with time spent and “with the sacrifices servicemen make together”, says lieutenant Ciprian Iriciuc. Building such a big family in a short time is not easy. But this is just the beginning and the desire for a great cohesive team lies within every member.
And there is one more wish for the future. Șerban, who brought Romania its first medal in the Invictus Games, hopes that, after the competition in Toronto, they will have proven themselves once again as warriors. He wants to get approval to go on another mission to Afghanistan. The major believes the Invictus Games are a step in that direction. “Trust comes in small steps. I am willing to take them.”
… and the story continues…
The next year, in 2018, Șerban got his wish: he went back to Afghanistan for a short mission. A longer one may come, but as he said… small steps.
He is not the only one who’s wish came true. At the Invictus Games in Sydney, Pătru went on to become champion. He won the gold medal in individual olympic bow. Paraschiva’s time away from his two daughters was somewhat rewarded. A bronze medal was hanging from his neck after the indoor rowing competition.
Here’s a look at the sweat and tears that went into the Invictus team’s preparation for their second participation to the Invictus Games in Sydney, 2018.
Part of the story was published by ESPN.