More than 180 British athletes and family members are in Israel this week for the third annual Veterans Games, a friendly competition between Israeli and UK veterans that includes events in swimming, shooting, and CrossFit.
With their partners cheering from the sidelines, athletes competed at the Beit Halochem center in Tel Aviv, while children were invited to participate in a simultaneous soccer camp. The event was organized by Beit Halochem UK, the British fundraising arm of Beit Halochem, the IDF Disabled Veterans Fund.
“We are brothers in arms, and we’re brothers in the same fights and achievements we’ve dealt with in our lives,” said Phillip Eaglesham, a former Royal Marine commander who competed in the swimming events. “This is all about inspiring other people so that we can inspire children with disabilities to get out and try.”
“‘Disabled’ is a word that able-bodied people use,” Eaglesham said. “We are just as ‘able’ as anyone else; we just need to find different ways to do things.”
Eaglesham has used a wheelchair since contracting a near-fatal fever during his service in Afghanistan 13 years ago. He’s the founder of Conquering Horizons, a company that produces wheelchairs that allow users to raise themselves up to standing height as well as navigate varied terrain including curbs, snow, and mud.
Eaglesham grew up in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles,” a conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the country that lasted from 1968 until 1998, and said he felt a special connection to Israel and its political situation.
“I remember having to leave primary school because of bomb threats and bombs going off,” he said.
For the past few months, Eaglesham has been taking a new medication that keeps his symptoms at bay for a few hours, allowing him, for the first time in over a decade, to walk for short periods of time.
He said he was thrilled to be able to explore portions of the narrow stone alleyways and steps of Jerusalem’s Old City by foot. Eaglesham, who has represented Ireland at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in shooting events, also medaled on Tuesday morning in the 50-meter breaststroke. It was one of the first times he’s swum an entire Olympic-length pool since being able to temporarily regain some strength.
Decorated Israeli Paralympic swimmer Hanoch Budin, who participated in six Paralympic Games and won eight medals, has been Israel’s ambassador to the Veteran Games since the first meeting three years ago. Budin said he found it moving to host soldiers from the UK at the same Tel Aviv pool where he started swimming as therapy after losing his arm in 1982 in Lebanon.
“Of course we’re taking part in competitions, but the most important part is the meeting [between countries], like we’re doing here today,” said Budin.
British Veteran’s Affairs Minister MP Johnny Mercer, who is in Israel for a state trip, attended the event on its first day and presented medals to some of the athletes.
While the sports competition occupies the British vet in the mornings, afternoons see them and their families touring the country, visiting places such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea. For many families, it’s one of the first opportunities to have a vacation in years. The delegation of 65 veterans includes those with physical disabilities as well as those with injuries not visible to the eye, including complex PTSD and other mental health issues stemming from their service.
The Israeli veterans competing in the events are regular attendees of Beit Halochem’s programs in Tel Aviv. Beit Halocem offers sports, social opportunities, and therapy for veterans wounded during service, with centers in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beersheba. A fifth center, for Ashdod, is in the planning stages.
Many wounded veterans struggle financially in the years after their accidents as they are unable to work or are limited to part-time employment, explained Roos Allsop, a doctor for the Hasler Naval Service Recovery Center who was in Israel for his second Veterans Games. This puts extra stress on families already struggling to navigate a new reality with a disability.
Seven British military charities select veterans for the trip to Israel, Allsop said. They aim to find people who need an opportunity to renew their connection with their spouses and children in a fun and relaxing way that focuses on what the veterans can achieve rather than on their role as patients, he said.
“Being in a group like this, where there are people who have so many similarities to you, it makes you feel less different,” Allsop said. “[After life-altering injuries], people can become more socially withdrawn, but if you can get the right people on these trips, you can actually save marriages.”
Craig Lundberg knows firsthand the importance of having his family on the sidelines. His 11-year-old son Ben was responsible for “tapping” him during his swimming races, using a cane to signal to his father that he was at the end of the lane, since Lundberg has completely lost his eyesight.
Lundberg was a 21-year-old corporal serving in Iraq in 2007 when he was injured by a direct hit on the house where his unit was carrying out arrests, leaving him with several injuries and a total loss of vision.
“My family lives with my disability every day, so it’s really good for them to see other soldiers and how they’re getting along and overcoming their challenges,” said Lundberg.
Lundberg’s regular sport is five-a-side blind football, but he’s also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, run marathons, and cycled the length of England since his accident. On Monday, Lundberg finished second in the CrossFit competition, and although he’s not a swimmer, he decided to try it to push himself out of his comfort zone. He finished third in the visually impaired classification on Tuesday.
“It’s good to see and share these experiences with other cultures because the issues are the same,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if you’re a blind UK soldier or a blind Israeli soldier — ultimately, you’re still blind. The problem isn’t where you came from or what the cause [of your accident] was. It’s about how you feel, it’s about how you treat yourself, it’s about how you go on going forward and living your life.”
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