Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
Augusta VA wheelchair athlete competes, helps others on their journey
August 2, 2018
Story by Jason Tudor
Public Affairs Officer | Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
VA Photo by Greg Swars/Dublin VAMC
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Across the crimson-and-grey playing surface, a flurry quick strong arms work wheels furiously to push across a center line, a bouncing white ball preceding them. The rolling chorus of Ben-Hur-ish chaos clashes into a waiting hoard of black-shirted Veterans, brows furrowed, faces determined and dripping sweat. It is easy to understand why this game was once called “Murderball.”
Army Veteran Jeremiah Butler of Augusta, Georgia is an ‘old-timer’ at this Quad Rugby event being played at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Florida this week. He knows the grinding, gnashing, speedy competition all too well.
But for these games, his goals don’t center around hard-fought victory.
“I’d like to win my competitions, but at this point, if I can impart something to the new people, I think that is the foundation of this event,” Butler said.
Butler, 35, who is paralyzed from the waist-down, has been collecting life lessons like these since Dec. 11, 2004. Back then, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, a young Private 1st Class Butler got into a fight about barracks contraband. Neither intended to fight, but one thing led to another, and the two found themselves in a game of “catch these hands.”
During the scuffle, Butler fell and the other soldier tumbled down on him, smashing Butler’s neck and crushing several vertebrae.
“By the time I hit the ground, I knew instantly something was wrong,” Butler said.
Butler didn’t remember much after being hauled off in the ambulance. When he woke up, they told him he had a spinal cord injury.
“I had about a 5% chance to walk again.”
Road to Recovery
Butler’s father, retired Army First Sgt. Johnny Butler, found out about his son’s injury while traveling in Texas.
“Stunned. Dumbfounded. Devastated,” Johnny said of the news, adding that he and his son were workout and running partners, noting Jeremiah was “in peak physical condition. He was in the prime of his life. Healthy as a horse.”
In the months that followed, Johnny said his son struggled with depression and discouragement. Jeremiah had to form different relationships, endure changes to quality of life and negotiate once simple things like using the restroom or lying down.
“He had to rely on everyone else to do things for him,” the father said. “It was a tough time.”
Johnny said his son’s recovery started with “a combo pack” of factors including family, faith and friends. “Jeremiah discovered that a setback can be a setup for a comeback.”
Once those building blocks were put in place, Jeremiah relaunched his life. He drove a car again. He went back to school. He traveled, most recently to London, Paris, and Barcelona, Spain. He bungee jumped, snorkeled in the Bahamas and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane.
“He is a guy who has always wanted to do stuff like skydiving. But hey … even I’m not going skydiving,” he father said, laughing.
Jeremiah also added much more to that list, including Quad Rugby. He’s played in sanctioned league since 2007. At these games with 700 Veterans from 40 states attending, Jeremiah is teamed with familiar faces.
“When I first started, it was about being introduced to what’s out there. Now, it’s an opportunity to talk to those newly injured folks from different walks of life,” Jeremiah said. “I see where they’re at in their life -- where their head is -- and then offer advice that might fit.”
During this year’s NVWG, he met a Veteran injured in a motorcycle crash. More harrowing, the crash killed the Veteran’s fiancé.
“More than injury, he was broken up about that,” Jeremiah said.
Support from VA, PVA
Jeremiah believes he may walk again someday (“If God decides he wants me to walk again, then that’s his plan.”) and credits the VA, specifically the Spinal Cord Injury Unit at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, as well as the Paralyzed Veterans of America, for aiding in his comeback.
“I’ve had nothing but great support. Our (VA Augusta) folks are awesome. No nonsense. They want to see you be the best you can be,” Jeremiah said. “Through the Spinal Cord Injury Unit and PVA and these games, you meet different people, do different things, and you can still have a very successful life.”
Jeremiah’s father also knows the value.
“VA and PVA are excellent. They gave him an outlet; a sense of belonging in sports, which he so desired but wasn’t able to have without their help,” he said. “It’s fantastic, awesome, and shows as sense of caring and concern. They’re not just drugging you up. They’re giving you an outlet to continue to have an abundant life,” Johnny said.
As the Quad Rugby contests roll on, Jeremiah said his work with others is not done.
“If I can impart something to folks who may need that extra spark, I think that is that is the foundation of this event.”