Veteran from Santa Rosa marks athletic return in Warrior Games

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Months into his recovery from a 2012 bomb blast in Afghanistan that ripped apart his legs, Stefan LeRoy kept one goal in mind — to one day be in motion while standing upright, his arms swinging in cadence with his stride.

Running remained a frustratingly elusive dream for the wounded U.S. Army specialist, even after he endured numerous surgeries and hours of physical therapy at a military hospital so that he could be fitted with prosthetic legs.

But the 24-year-old from Santa Rosa was determined, and earlier this year, after he healed from yet another surgery, the former high school track athlete finally was able to experience the thrill of running again.

Remarkably, after only a few months getting used to his titanium and carbon-fiber legs, LeRoy is scheduled to compete in an upcoming athletic competition featuring some of the finest disabled athletes in the world.

The aptly named Warrior Games, which kick off Friday in Virginia, are LeRoy’s opportunity to demonstrate just how far he’s come in the three years since his world was shattered.

“It’s just a fantastic experience to be running again. It’s freeing,” LeRoy said by phone last week from Virginia’s Fort Belvoir, where he has been training for the Warrior Games.

The nine-day Olympic-style competition, held at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, features 250 wounded and disabled service members and veterans from U.S. and British armed forces.

LeRoy epitomizes the typical entrant’s hard-charging desire to not let a disability limit his or her desire to lead an active life. The event also spotlights the technologies that have made it possible for wounded service members to engage in physical exercise.

LeRoy is a 2009 graduate of Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School who ran track for the Pumas. He enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after graduating but left before his freshman year ended to enlist in the military.

A paratrooper with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, LeRoy was on patrol with about 30 other soldiers in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province on June 7, 2012, when explosions rocked the ground around his group.

LeRoy had grabbed on to a stretcher to help carry a wounded soldier to safety when he stepped on a buried bomb and it exploded. He was flown to Germany and then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which would become his home for nearly three years.

LeRoy underwent numerous surgeries to clean his wounds and to facilitate healing on what remained of his legs. Amputees are referred to as singles, doubles, triples and quads, based on the number of missing limbs. LeRoy technically is classified as an “AK/BK,” meaning his left leg was amputated above the knee and his right leg below the knee.

His weekday, two-hour physical therapy sessions included exercises to build up strength and flexibility in his lower torso, as well as upper-body strength by tossing medicine balls to a partner, using cross-country skiing machines and rope-climbing.

LeRoy left Walter Reed on May 17 after he was medically discharged from the Army at the rank of sergeant. As a disabled veteran, he is entitled to lifetime health care benefits from the government as well as a monthly stipend.

He moved into an apartment with his girlfriend and has his sights set on taking classes at a community college. His longer-term goals are to gain acceptance into Georgetown University and work for the State Department.

His immediate focus, however, is on the Warrior Games, which are hosted by the Department of Defense and convene Friday with a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will deliver the opening remarks.

The games feature eight adaptive sports: archery, cycling, field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and wheelchair basketball. Athletes had to qualify in order to participate in the games. Besides track sprints, LeRoy will compete in cycling, swimming, basketball and volleyball.

Prior to LeRoy’s most recent surgery, a lingering wound on his right leg prevented him from using a prosthetic on that side.

Surgeons finally fixed the problem on the right side by stretching tissue over the stump of the leg. With nerve sensation restored to the area, LeRoy can feel whether he’s in danger of rubbing a new wound.

The Warrior Games will be Mike and Kathy LeRoy’s first opportunity to witness their son running. The couple, who live in Santa Rosa, are attending the games courtesy of the government.

“I know they are proud of me,” LeRoy said. “It’s been a long journey and they helped me through it. I think my dad will have a sense of accomplishment, too.”

Mike LeRoy, an independent computer programmer, said his son’s present condition represents a “whole lot of progress” from the early days at Walter Reed.

“He’s doing real well,” Mike said.

LeRoy’s coach concurred.

“He doesn’t let his injury limit him in any way,” said Rodney Carson, Team Army’s head track coach for the games. “He’s positive. His workout ethic is outstanding.”

Longer-term, LeRoy is focused on staying healthy and charting a new path now that he’s re-entered civilian life.

“I’m in that place where I just got out of the Army and I need to find some focus and direction,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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