An athletic spectacle for wounded troops in Colorado Springs brought a bonus this year as the Warrior Games renewed its emphasis on the importance of family.
The annual games, held last week at the Air Force Academy, brought together athletes from across the Defense Department and drew teams of American allies. Their families filled the stands and got an increased role on the field of play.
"This year, we integrated the families more," said Air Force Col. Gina Oliver, the director of this year's Warrior Games. "That provides a more meaningful and memorable experience. Individuals and families come out stronger after that experience."
A support network of family and friends is essential to the recovery process for the wounded, ill or injured athletes, Oliver said.
And so, Warrior Games and Fisher House Foundation - a nonprofit known for providing lodging to the families of wounded troops - paid the airfare, lodging and meals for two family members per athlete.
More than 500 parents, spouses and children were able to travel to Colorado Springs from across the world for free, Oliver said.
"What they do for families is amazing," said Amanda North. Her husband competed in an archery event as she sat with their 3-year old son. "They are there to greet you when you arrive, show you where to go. They supply us with team gear, you feel part of it."
North's husband suffers from an autoimmune disease and heart issues, forcing him to medically retire from the Coast Guard last year.
Leaving the service isolated the young family, North said.
"We are in our hometown, but we just feel lost," she said.
That feeling of isolation disappeared as soon as they arrived at the Warrior Games.
"I feel like they want me here," she said.
But not all athletes came with spouses or children. Some found their family in fellow competitors.
"Your support network or your fire team, it doesn't leave when you get out, it just changes," said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jefferson Brink, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
After an injury in Iraq, Brink turned to alcohol to cope.
"I managed to fight the good fight for a few years until things came crashing down," he said. "When I hit rock bottom, I lost my sense of purpose."
Warrior Games helped him find it, he said. Training and competing with fellow Marines helps him heal and allows him to be part of a team again.
"I feel better every day," he said.