How a Wounded Warrior's Start-Up Fuels 'Post-Traumatic Growth'
BY Bill Murphy Jr.
An outdoor sports nonprofit helps people with disabilities use their challenges as a springboard for growth.
This is the third in a series of columns on nonprofit ventures founded by veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find the previous entries on Team Rubicon and Team RWB on Inc.
Army Maj. D.J. Skelton refers to the day he was wounded in Iraq as "the time I forgot to duck." His nickname for the series of painful surgeries he's endured is "Playing Mr. Potato Head."
It's the kind of attitude that permeates Paradox Sports, the group Skelton and co-founder Timmy O'Neill launched to provide "inspiration, opportunities, and adaptive equipment to the disabled community, empowering their pursuit of a life of excellence through human-powered outdoor sports."
In September, Skelton and O'Neill led a group of wounded military veterans--including one blinded in an attack in Afghanistan and another who lost a leg--on a two-day climb up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. "We all experience traumatic events in our lives," Skelton said, and Paradox Sports's goal is helping those who have--both veterans and civilians--live lives that are "stronger, more enriched than they were before. It's about post-traumatic growth, instead of PTSD."
Birth of an Idea
First, a disclosure: Skelton and I have been friends for years and I've written about his Army service and his recovery elsewhere, including in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
He graduated from West Point in 2003, deployed to Iraq the following year, and was wounded in Fallujah on the eve of one of the biggest battles of the post-invasion campaign. From the article:
Insurgents ambushed him as he moved ahead of his platoon on Nov. 6, 2004. A rocket exploded a concrete pylon, part of a highway overpass, and Skelton was hammered with metal and rock.
He was thrown from his feet. Shrapnel tore his right cheek, butchered the roof of his mouth and ripped out his left eye from the inside. Fighters opened up, riddling him with AK-47 rounds.
The first six months of recovery were rough. When he had healed to the point where he could leave the hospital and was assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., he linked up with rock climbing buddies he had spent weekends with before he'd gone to war.
Learning to climb again went a long way toward healing Skelton's mental pain and he realized others could benefit from similar experiences.
"I said yes"
By early 2007, Skelton was working at the Pentagon as a military aide to the deputy secretary of defense while undergoing additional surgeries.
"I was in a hallway at Walter Reed. [Staff Sgt.] Jake Kessler, a wounded warrior and double amputee, asked me to take him rock climbing," said Skelton. "I said yes."
Unsure of how to take someone with those kinds of physical challenges climbing, Skelton reached out to O'Neill, a professional climber who had successfully led his brother, Sean, a 12 paraplegic, up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
"I emailed him out of the blue and said, 'This is who I am, this is what I want to do. What do you think?'" Skelton said.
An Independent Organization
Over the next few years, Paradox Sports slowly grew into a real a 501(c)(3) organization, holding over 30 events nationwide, focusing on climbing rock and ice, kayaking, backpacking, mountaineering, and other adventurous outdoor activities.
But in the meantime, Skelton had his own healing to do, which meant redoubling his commitment to the military. Eventually he convinced the Army to let him return to the infantry.
He handed off the organization's leadership to O'Neill and Malcolm Daly, a renowned climbing entrepreneur who had also overcome physical challenges after a climbing accident in 1999 left him without a leg.
In 2011, Skelton went to combat again, leading an infantry company in Afghanistan, as one of a handful of severely wounded combat veterans who had returned to the front lines. A former enlisted Chinese linguist in the military, Skelton then spent a year in China as a foreign area officer in training.
During Skelton's absence, Paradox Sports had grown significantly and continued to expand their adaptive sports programs and conduct clinics at rock climbing gyms and health clinics around the country.
He returned to the United States this summer and got involved with Paradox Sports again.
The ultimate goal, Skelton said, is for Paradox to make itself obsolete, which will happen when gyms, equipment manufacturers, and others begin including disabled people in their plans.
"We train the trainers," he said. "So next year we're showcasing the first-ever guide to performing adaptive events. It's a guide for rock climbing gyms or workout gyms to educate themselves so they can provide healthy workouts for disabled populations. We hope that will spread to gyms and recreational communities around the USA."