Strait On: Hemet local wins medals in National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Sprained ankle turns into leg amputation that doesn’t get this veteran down

Photo by Rusty Strait/The Valley Chronicle
Hemet resident Julian Perez is a bronze and gold medalist in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

Don’t tell Julian Perez that he’s handicapped. In the past two years he’s won four gold and two bronze medals in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“There is very little I can’t do,” the proud U. S. Marine Corps veteran declares, as he scoots around the house in his electric wheelchair with the grace of a swan. Oh, by the way, he is missing a limb most of us think we simply couldn’t live without – his right leg.
As Julian Perez proudly displays his Olympic medals, this hero’s soft and furry feline, Cleo, purrs against his cheek. Semper Fi, my friends, Semper Fi.
What happened to Julian and how he refused to let it bring him down is an amazing tale of courage and determination. Here is his story.
“I played semi-pro football at San Diego State and might have made the NFL, but that’s another story,” said Perez. “I joined the Marine Corps and my first duty station was at El Toro, California Naval Air Wing, and later I transferred to Camp Butler on Okinawa. While there, I played some football and during a couple of games I snapped my right ankle a couple of times. It didn’t break, but was severely sprained.
“After returning to the States, while stationed at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, twice on forced marches and carrying a full pack, we were tromping through a gully and my ankle collapsed. Again, it did not break, but shattered in a way that produced a lot of bone chips. I never considered it as anything serious and I doubt the service did either because in September 1983 they shipped me off to Beirut, where we were up to our ears in a Middle East war.”
Perez was assigned to a serious and somber duty known as “the body bag detail.”
“Our job was to see that our fallen comrades were treated with respect before they were shipped home for burial,” explained Perez. “It was a task I was very proud of because it was an important and significant job in the military. We were proud to make sure our brothers in arms came home properly.”
Perez was discharged in 1985.
“My leg wasn’t right then, but I consider myself lucky that I managed to keep it for another 28 years before the inevitable caught up with me. My ankle collapsed and in 2013 I was admitted to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Los Angeles and given the cold hard facts by the medics – the right foot needed to go, but there were prosthetics now available and I would soon get used to a new foot and be as good as ever.”
But something went wrong. The surgeon noticed red streaks up his leg, but nobody told the surgeon it was from a previous situation.
“She thought that she might as well do it right and took the whole leg. Of course that meant I would not be as good as ever.”
His recuperation took almost two years.
“I was active, but I needed time to develop the strength back in my good leg to be able to get my balance. I clearly remember the lady who provided me with my new electric wheelchair. She said, ‘Don’t ever let anybody tell you not to use it.’”
Perez admits that in the beginning he had difficulty controlling himself or the wheelchair, but he never gave up.

Photo by Rusty Strait/The Valley Chronicle
Julian Perez recently competed in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati.

Encouragement leads to wheelchair sports
“I owe a lot to my fellow amputees at the Loma Linda VA Hospital. They saw me cruising around in my electric chair. ‘C’mon,’ one said. ‘You’re too active to be doing this. You need to come with us. Bet you’d be great on the slalom course.’”
He heard similar sentiments in Los Angeles, from his buddies, Robert and Don. “We were like the “Three Amigos,” racing around in our electric vehicles.”
In 2014 he was approached by the captain of the Westwood wheelchair team. Perez jumped at the opportunity to show that he was not what folks thought of as “disabled.”
“I trained, doing obstacle courses on my own. My goal was to win. I wanted to show the world there was still something in me worthwhile.”
And he did exactly that. In 2016 he became part of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.
“I felt like I was playing my first pro football game. I was the new guy on the team and as the guys took off one by one in slalom I got lost watching them, trying to figure out how they did it. It is not as easy as one might think,” said Perez. “They put tricks in the course, and you don’t get a trial run. What happens is we got a walk through and had to remember a lot of things, like where all the twists and turns were located.
I became so involved actually, that I failed to notice that everyone had taken off and I was left alone. Did they forget me? Not at all.
“The lady starter smiled. ‘No, you just happened to be the last one out. You’re going next.’”
At different stations along the route, you are asked questions about the city hosting the games. As a former Mormon, he knew a lot about Salt Lake City.
He obviously knew enough about what he was doing because he came away with two gold medals – one in the slalom and one in motor rally.
The 37th Nationals were hosted by the city of Cincinnati. The San Jacinto and Hemet Posts of the American Legion sponsored Julian’s participation this past July, and they were not disappointed. Julian came home with four medals – two gold and two bronze. Again, he faced the nagging questions about the host city.
“I did well, thanks to my years as a truck driver where Cincinnati was my headquarters. I’m not sure about next year,” he laughs, “because they’re being held in Atlanta.”
He’s looking for sponsors, so if some of you guys with big bucks want to do something for a veteran, I can’t think of a better place to put your money where your mouth is.

Photo by Rusty Strait/The Valley Chronicle
Julian Perez takes a minute to cuddle with his pal Cleo.

I knew nothing about these Wheelchair Olympics until I met Julian at the Hemet American Legion Post 53. He was the honored guest at our monthly board meeting, but I wanted to know more, so aside from this interview, I hit the internet.
Co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is a rehabilitation and wheelchair sports program that empowers veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation.
Each summer, veterans from across the nation, including a team from Great Britain, travel to a new community that hosts the event. During the week, veterans compete in 19 wheelchair sports events while providing encouragement and mentoring for new veterans. Veterans at the games educate newly disabled veterans on what is possible and if you should actually witness the games, you’d learn that most limitations among these energetic guys and gals are only a state of mind.
It all began in 1985 with an idea of how to encourage these so-called “handicapped” vets into a positive, rather than negative, attitude. The annual event is one of the largest annual wheelchair sports programs and definitely world class.
Julian is one of many who refuse to let the loss of a limb or several other functions to get in the way of moving on. Next time you find some excuse to not do something that ought to be done, remember Julian’s mantra: “There isn’t anything I can’t do.” Just sayin’.

rustystrait@gmail.com

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