Warriors at Camp Pendleton Push Through Pain for Competition

2017 Marine Corps Trials athletes dive into the pool during swimming practice at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., March 12, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote)
2017 Marine Corps Trials athletes dive into the pool during swimming practice at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., March 12, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Lance Cpl. Roderick Jacquote)

CAMP PENDLETON -- Staff Sgt. Matthew Karoda diligently practiced his starts off the block in a swimming pool on the base.

It was less than 24 hours before the swimming finals in the Marine Corps Trials -- an eight-sport paralympic event. Karoda, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and depression, needed to be sharp Wednesday. He was competing in the 50-yard freestyle and 50-yard breaststroke finals.

Karoda already won a silver in at the shooting range on Saturday.

"I would like to get another medal," the 33-year-old said. "I like to compete and push myself."

Karoda, who grew up in Santa Ana, is based at Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, N.C. He was one of 250 wounded and ill Marines and sailors taking part in the seventh annual event that pits the Marine Corp's Wounded Warrior West Battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, against athletes from Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp LeJeune and an international team made up of military from Australia, Colombia, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Competitions included swimming, track and field, cycling, wheelchair basketball, field shooting, archery and sitting volleyball. Gold medals were handed out in wheelchair basketball Tuesday to Wounded Warrior Battalion-East Team Bravo.

Athletes from the trial will be selected to compete in the Department of Defense Warrior Games June 30 in Chicago. There, Marines will compete against teams from the Army, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Camp Pendleton trials were put on by the Wounded Warrior Regiment, which oversees nearly 500 active wounded, ill or injured Marines and supports more than 30,000 veterans. The regiment -- founded in 2007 -- transitions Marines back to active duty or into civilian life.

"More and more with our population, we are seeing the invisible wounds of war versus the apparent, physical wounded," said Col. Scott Campbell, commanding officer of the regiment. "So something like archery is less about the physical and more about the mental process -- slowing down, tuning out your surroundings and focusing on the target."

Karoda, who competed for Wounded Warrior Battalion-East, was based at Camp Pendleton during the early part of his 18-year career. He deployed to Iraq with the second battalion/4th Marines in 2004. As an infantryman, he was exposed to constant explosions from improvised explosive devices, he said.

He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005.

"I felt I was doing well but others realized I had symptoms," he said. "I was doing the isolation thing. Dealing with anger was a problem. It's easy to be aggressive at work because it's what we do, but when I went home, it wasn't good. The Wounded Warrior Regiment has given me the opportunity to work on my recovery."

The Wounded Warrior Regiment has helped Master Sgt. Howard Tait restore his pride in leading Marines. Over the weekend, the 43-year-old from Temecula competed in shooting and cycling.

Tait has been a Marine for 22 years, deploying 10 times.

In 2006, Tait said he had the "worst year of my life." His grandfather and father both died from cancer and he lost four of his Marines to bombs in Iraq. When he came back to Camp Pendleton, it was his job to notify the relatives of the Marines' death.

He deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. Just 48 hours into the deployment, a local man brought his daughter to Tait's Forward Operating Base. The girl's left jaw and earlobe was hit by gunfire.

"Every third and fourth day, there was something," he said. "Over and over there were IED's and suicide attacks and massive amounts of casualties.When I got back, things didn't feel right. I tried to overwork to bury it."

In 2014, Tait got the courage to ask for mental health assistance. That kickstarted him to the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West where he participates in swimming, cycling, woodworking and music therapy.

"They forewarn you that when you go to the Wounded Warrior Battalion that you will learn to just take care of yourself," he said. "As a master sergeant, I was used to taking care of hundreds of Marines. Learning to do that made my progress so successful."

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