Former Marine can't be slowed by pains of war, wheelchair

August 06, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

When Al Velasco is racing, his thoughts manage to escape the barb-wired outpost he once called home.

For a moment, the former Marine isn’t thinking about the bullets he narrowly ducked in Iraq. He doesn’t see the faces of his eight comrades who weren’t so lucky. 

On the course there are no night sweats. No flashbacks. No demons leftover from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

 “It’s an unbelievable feeling to push all that aside,” the 33-year-old Schaumburg resident said. “I can’t explain it.”

Velasco loves to race. But he doesn’t do so with his legs.

Velasco is paralyzed from the chest down. On Oct. 3, 2007 he fell asleep at the wheel, slammed into the median and was flung from his car.

He’s completed several races aboard his hand cycle since his accident. But the one coming on Aug. 12 is different.

He’ll be competing alongside fellow disabled veterans as a part of Valor Games Midwest.


Valor Games, in its third year in Chicago, features events such as cycling, archery, field events, power lifting and rowing from Aug. 12-14 at Soldier field and Armour Square Park. The event’s goal is to promote active lifestyles in injured vets.

Velasco, a current training coordinator for the Oak Park Police Department and first-time participant, will compete in cycling and power lifting.

“It’ll be nerve-racking being in front of so many people. I don’t like the spotlight,” Velasco said. “But other than that, it’s going to be an amazing experience.”

Like always, Velasco is looking forward to the sobering hum of tires rubbing pavement and the bubbling anticipation of seeing his wife and kids as he rolls across the finish line.

But the Valor Games bring an added bonus to competing.

“Not too long ago, I wasn’t ambitious enough to try something like [the Valor Games],” Velasco said. “I haven’t even competed yet, but I already feel like I was missing out by not doing Valor Games before.”

Indeed, Velasco has come along way since returning from duty in 2005.

He’s seen the lows of war. He struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, often having questions like “why did I send him out there?” rattle in his mind.


But even with all the pain, he hasn’t forgotten the exhilarating highs of active duty.

In fact, he misses Iraq.

It’s a feeling few understand. But the competitors at Valor Games will.

“Our country is amazing. I was honored to serve my country--honored,” Velasco said. “But I miss being out there [in Iraq]. It’s not the fighting I miss. It’s the camaraderie. Those guys become your family.

“[At Valor Games] I’m going to start making new friends. I’ll be able to share my experiences overseas with people who get it.”

In that sense, he views his wheelchair as a blessing. It has brought him closer to others injured veterans and provided him with a clear goal.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I have met so many great and inspirational people and other vets while being in this chair.”

Velasco hasn’t forgotten the countless favors, the strangers who visited him in bed not long ago, the games of bingo, the goody bags and the support. It inspired him.

“Honestly, sir, I just want to make everyone proud and help,” he said. “Everyone that helped me out, I want to show them that helping me out wasn’t for nothing.”

Since his injury, Velasco has worked with organizations like Veterans of Forgiven Wars, Heart of a Marine and Operation Welcome Home. He’s even serving as a volunteer during Valor Games on the day he’s not competing.

But this is only the beginning.

Velasco is shy. He speaks just above a whisper. His voice pulses and catches in his throat.  But when he talks about the future and helping veterans, his tone dips to a stern baritone. There’s only confidence to be found. 

“I just want to help my fellow vets, sir. I think it’s fate,” he said. “Everything is pushing me there. So it’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to keep helping.

“Who knows? Maybe I’ll even compete in the Paralympics one day. I know a couple paraplegics have done the Iron Man. Who knows? I want to show everyone that helped me it was worth the time. I want to inspire people.”

He’s currently training for the Chicago Marathon in October.

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