Navy vet makes the most of tenth chances
We all have a little bit of the cat in us.
At the very least, we all hope to use our nine lives.
Ryan Sykes? He’s used his nine. And now he’s living his tenth.
Sykes, 37, of Grass Valley, is a Navy veteran. He joined the military a six months removed from high school via a delayed entry program. He said he was always interested in the service. “I liked the idea that I could help out and support the country and travel the world, [and that the Navy] could encompass all that.”
He was in boot camp when the USS Cole was victimized by a terrorist attack in October, 2000.
Post-9/11, Sykes was stationed in Guantanamo Bay as part of a support team.
He was stationed at the U.S. Southern Command in Southern Florida and served several roles, one of them was to assist Operation Enduring Freedom Combat Forces.
He also served in Colombia to assist Counter-drug Operations from the US Embassy in Bogota, Colombia
He reenlisted in 2004 while he was stationed in Iraq, one of nine tours overseas. Five of those tours, totaling about two years, took place in Afghanistan.
It was that ninth tour, the ninth life, that got him.
Sykes was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, thrown into a ditch where he lay for about five hours until he was discovered.
He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, a collapsed lung, pneumonia, facial fractures. He was busted up. He wasn’t supposed to make it.
He was air-vac’d to Germany. The operation was successful, insofar that he was alive. A year’s worth of recuperation followed at Walter Reed Medical Center as well as another medical hospital in Virginia.
This was 2008.
He didn’t hear about Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra until 2014. He had been living in the Bay Area, continuing to recuperate, but as Sykes said, “I was itching to go out and do some stuff.”
Through online research, he identified the DSES opportunity and came for a visit.
Sykes’s situation, then as now:
The left side of his body is partially paralyzed. He gets around via wheelchair. He was left-handed prior to his accident but, obviously, he’s been forced to switch it up. He suffers from double vision, but compensates by saying simply, “I know what to look at and what not to look at.”
When prompted for further explanation, Sykes replied, “One image appears a little shakier than the other (that’s the double). So what I try to do is teach my brain to obey the right signal.”
Sheet: How difficult is it for you to read? Is that something you can do?
Sykes (without a hint of complaint or self-pity): You just have to make sure you don’t read the same line over and over because it keeps jumping around.
And why Disabled Sports, and athletics, has been so important to him:
“Athletic stuff is what really motivates me,” says Sykes. “The body … the muscle memory kicks in when I do stuff that’s sports-related. And I find it calming.”
After his winter visit to Mammoth where he skied using the seat bucket and sliders, Sykes moved onto a “Tough Mudder” which i.e. exactly what it sounds like. A brutal obstacle course in the mud.
Sykes competed in the race using an off-road trike with a support team of 20 or so.
As Sykes says, his legs are pretty strong, and DSES Executive Director Kathy Copeland would be the first to agree.
“He shows up for the Sierra Cycle Challenge [a DSES summer fundraiser] and just pedals his ass off. He literally doesn’t stop for three days.”
Finally, 2014 was also the year that Sykes finally moved home, and recapturing that feeling of belonging has probably been the most important part of his tenth life.
“It’s really great being home … everyone’s very accommodating to a guy rolling up in a chair. Very hospitable.”
Why Sykes would like to see the National Wounded Warrior Center built:
After you’re injured, explained Sykes, you’ve got to re-pattern your brain, and in the beginning, it’s an exhausting process requiring a lot of energy.
To be in a communal atmosphere, in an environment tailored toward rehabilitation “is exactly what we need,” said Sykes.
He admits he would visit more often if he could, but like most vets, he’s a team player, a little bit stoic.
Certainly more capacity for DSES would mean more opportunities for people who need it.
“I realize other people need to come too, to experience it. I would come more if I could, but it’s just been so impactful … I know others [need that spot more than I do].”
The National Wounded Warrior Center, proposed to be built on the Cerro Coso college campus in Mammoth Lakes, would allow Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra to provide support services to more than 300 veterans and their families each year.
The 36-room facility would provide transitional housing designed for veterans, and include areas for recreation, learning and dining.
Veterans would also have access to educational and vocational programs, wellness and PTSD management training and therapuetic opportunities.
DSES is in the midst of an $18 million capital campaign. See the facing page for details.