Before he could win his six new medals, Marine Corps Sgt. Evan Stratton had to earn a Purple Heart.
Stratton deployed to Iraq in February 2009. On July 19 of that year, his team was ambushed by enemy forces with anti-tank grenades. Stratton was riddled with shrapnel and suffered a traumatic brain injury. His spinal accessory nerve was severed, leaving his upper left arm and shoulder paralyzed.
Despite all that, he woke up, stood up and provided cover while his team battled the rebels and tried unsuccessfully to save Stratton’s roommate, Lance Cpl. Brandon Lara.
“You train for it, and you react the way they train you to react,” said Stratton, who attended both Arapahoe and Littleton high schools. “Nobody wants to lose a Marine. It’s hard on everybody.”
Stratton took that same resilience to Colorado Springs for the Warrior Games, held May 11-16 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy. Britain’s Prince Harry drew the world’s attention to the games by joining in, but Stratton was more impressed by another celebrity close encounter.
“I got to swim in the same pool as Michael Phelps did once,” he said.
And he was nearly as successful. Competing in both swimming and track, he came home with six medals and world records in three swimming events.
“It was really cool,” he said. “I wasn’t so concerned about doing well for myself, I just really wanted to do the best I could for everyone on the team.”
More than 200 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from around the country and the United Kingdom participated this year, competing against others with similar injuries in archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball and track and field.
“Paralympic sport has a tremendously positive impact on individuals with physical disabilities,” said Charlie Huebner, U.S. Olympic Committee chief of Paralympics. “The Warrior Games allow us to salute these fine young men and women who have served their countries honorably.”
The different branches of the military compete against each other for the Chairman’s Cup, given to whichever team wins the most medals. Stratton’s six helped the Marines claim it again this year, as they have every year since the inception of the Warrior Games in 2010.
“Regardless of who you are and what you face in your life, it’s a life-changing event to see what these guys have overcome,” said Dawn Stratton, Evan’s very proud mom and the testing coordinator at Arapahoe Community College. “I’ll never be the same after seeing those games. It was so inspiring.”
Stratton has stayed in good shape since leaving the Marines, and he ran track and was a lifeguard in high school.
“I was always comfortable in water, but I never competed,” he said. “Learning to swim with only one arm was a challenge.”
But even more than adapting to his new physical reality, he said the biggest challenge he’s faced since being injured was transitioning out of the military.
“Your friends have deployed and been to war, so that’s your support system,” he said. “Everyone understands. You don’t have to talk about it. But when you get out, you’re kind of on your own. You lose that support.”
The Warrior Games gave him a chance to experience that brotherhood and camaraderie so key to a soldier’s existence. The new veterans center at ACC, where he’s now working toward a degree in human resources, is also helpful.
“Being a veteran and not really having those connections, that day-in and day-out contact, it’s really fun to be around Marines. You meet some really amazing people.”