Airman Reflects on Warrior Games' Evolution, Growth

CHICAGO, June 30, 2017 — As one airman took the sitting volleyball court at McCormick Place here for practice before the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games, he reflected on how the games have changed since he began competing in 2011.

“I was on the original Air Force team in Colorado Springs, [Colorado],” Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chris D’Angelo said. In his first games, he said, he competed in any sport he could. “I shot, played volleyball, basketball and track. I was doing just about everything. You were just worn down.”

Things have changed for the Warrior Games, said D’Angelo, a facility management, pavements and equipment specialist with the 819th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer Squadron out of Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. “Now, we just have so many more people to help carry the load,” he said.

The teams have grown from about 12 athletes in those early days to as many as 50, so more people can be put where they are the strongest in their respective sports, D’Angelo said, adding that during the first Warrior Games, the athletes had to drive themselves to each event, and there was just one van shuttling the athletes to each event. The games are now very structured, he said.

“Each Warrior Games has gotten more organized as it went along and more people bought into it and supported us,” D’Angelo said. “It’s been amazing to see that transition, to see how much it’s grown, to see how much support and how many people just want to help us compete and get better, from teammates to coaches to volunteers to outside organizations.”

He said the best part about the Warrior Games, both then and now, is that they’re about recovery through sports.

“Winning is an added bonus,” D’Angelo said, “but helping your fellow teammates out is the bigger picture. And if that gets them one step closer to recovering and meeting their new normal, then that’s what we want to do.”

Why He Competes

D’Angelo joined the Air Force in February 2000 and has served 17 years on active duty, with 81 combat missions in Iraq. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device blast during his deployment to Iraq in February 2008. Though his sister, cousin and two aunts served in the Air Force, D’Angelo said he joined the Air Force because of his grandfather, Jack Penrose, who also served in the Air Force.

“I looked up to him as a big part of my life so I trusted his judgement, and I did it for him more than anything,” he said. “I stayed in because I loved it and ended up doing it for me, but he was the reason I joined.”

As he earned gold, silver and bronze medals over the years — gold in the 1500-meter run in 2011, 2012 and 2014 and gold in 2011 and silver in 2012 for sitting volleyball — he said his greatest pleasure was seeing his grandfather’s face in the stands as he was competing.

“It was awesome to see his face, seeing me get back into competitions, being active, happy and normal again after everything I was going through, just to see that joy on my face and to see the joy I brought him and to be able to keep doing it,” D’Angelo said. “It was just an amazing experience.”

He said after he received his first medals, his grandparents hugged and congratulated him.

“It just made me feel amazing because I made him proud,” he said. “And at the end of the day, that was always my goal, I just wanted to make him proud.”

D’Angelo said he also wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the love and support of his wife of 11 years, Chanda, and his children, Chance, 22, Jace, 15, and Brittyn, 6.

“They’re my rock,” he said with a big smile. “Everything I do is for them and without them, I wouldn’t be here today. Without their support and their constant pushing me to get better, I wouldn’t be here.”

D’Angelo will be competing in sitting volleyball and the 800-meter and 1500-meter in track.

The Department of Defense Warrior Games are taking place here today through July 8. About 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter @CollinsDoDNews