Greg Starman admits he will occasionally still find himself wondering, “Why?” Why did such an unbelievably cruel twist of fate have to befall a strapping, young Marine from Quincy?
Why, less than one week before his 21st birthday, did he find himself a quadriplegic.
Why, six years later, is he still battling a chronic pain problem?
It’s at times like these Starman will remind himself, “Why not?”
Even though his life changed forever in a freakish military accident six years ago, Starman gradually came to realize how precious a gift that life itself is.
Granted, it took many long, lonely and difficult hours of self-reflection and examination before Starman, now 27, was able to stave off being swallowed by various combinations of anger, self-pity and a kind of loneliness only those in such a situation can truly understand or experience.
“Why not” savor the feelings of a life lived to the fullest, even if that life must be lived in a fashion he never expected?
Why not, indeed.
“It is an attitude which, I think, is built in to our family,” said his mom, Jill. “Life throws you curves and you have to deal with them. We always try to have some kind of hope.”
Starman now lives his life from a wheelchair, with only minimal movement in his upper torso and arms. He cannot move his fingers. He is a quadriplegic.
Yet there are no outward complaints, only goals to be reached.
And a life to be lived.
To Starman, the past is irrelevant. It is just that — the past. The future is what provides the motivation and importance for Starman, who will be competing in three events in the 24th National Veterans Wheelchair Games June 15-19 in St. Louis.
This event is annually the largest wheelchair sports competition in the world and is a joint effort with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“There are some things I’d like to do, but can’t … and I think about that at times,” said Starman, who graduated from high school at Calvary Academy in Quincy, a small private Christian school which is no longer in existence.
Starman has found himself limited since sustaining his life-altering injury relatively early in his stay in the Marine Corps. He enlisted while in high school and after graduation began a military career which covered 1995-98. It ended while he was stationed in California, where he was involved in a bizarre accident while behind the wheel of a Marine vehicle.
Starman said he was driving in what amounted to a dust storm, when in the blink of an eye the 80-pound hood of the vehicle in question broke loose, flew back and hit him in the head. He suffered a broken Vertebrae and bruised spinal cord.
Extensive hospital stays, surgeries and Rehabilitation efforts followed over the ensuing days, weeks, months and years. Dealing with the emotional scars as well as the physical handicap proved especially difficult in the early going.
“When I started to come around I didn’t realize what had happened,” Starman said. “The first couple of years it was very hard to deal with. I never thought something like that could happen to me.”
By January 1999, about four months after his accident, Starman was back in Quincy with the family members who had had been at his side since the injury occurred.
“They were always with me,” Starman said of the support provided by his parents, brothers and sisters. His dad, Kyle, plus brothers Nick and Chris and sisters Elizabeth and Victoria.
Modifications were made to the family home to better accommodate Greg, who remembers some of the rough times shortly after the injury when he was trying to cope with what had happened and what was ahead.
“I would wake up and look at my legs … and I would be depressed,” he said.
As he slowly gained a foothold on his new life, he eventually became active with friends, going to social functions and creating a new existence. His passion for testing his own limits was slowly returning and he became interested in trying the wheelchair athletic route.
“One of the things we first did was provide Greg with books written by people who had through the same kind of thing — like Christopher Reeve and Teddy Pendergrass,” Jill Starman said. “Christopher Reeve wrote in his book how difficult it was at first at night, after everyone had left.”
So during some of Greg’s early hospital stays, his dad stayed with him at nights for six straight weeks.
“We have worked together and we’ve done what we can,” Jill Starman said. “Everyone pitches in. When something needs to be done, we do it.”
What has been most troubling for Greg’s mom has been her son’s ongoing battle with pain, something doctors have not been able to remedy. It’s at times like that she tries to mirror the determination she sees in her son.
“It all really didn’t hit me until two years ago,” she said. “This has all taken so much of his life away, and everything is so difficult … but there’s still a life to live.”
The St. Louis Games will be Greg Starman’s second time in that event, having competed in 2003 in Long Beach, Calif. He also took part in the 16th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colo., in 2002, an activity which featured such events as scuba diving, rock climbing, sledge hockey, snowshoeing, horseback riding and skiing.
Starman remembers taking a couple of tumbles in Colorado and realizing, at least in certain cases, discretion — or at least caution — might be the wisest choice when deciding what his next athletic foray would be.
“I thought, ‘All I need to do is land on my head and have another injury and I would wind up being like Christopher Reeve,’ ” said Starman, referring to the former movie actor’s well-documented spinal injury after falling head-first off of a horse.
Starman’s enthusiasm remains intact and he is looking forward to the competition in St. Louis, where many of his extended family members from the Quincy area will be able to see him take part for the first time.
“I wanted to try new things I never tried before and I’ve met a lot of new people from all over the country,” Starman said of his involvement in such competitions.
More than 500 wheelchair athletes from across the United States, Puerto Rico and Great Britain will participate in 16 competitions in St. Louis. The Games are open to all U.S. military veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition due to spinal cord injuries, certain neurological conditions, amputations or other mobility impairments.
The four-day event will include competition in track and field, swimming, basketball, weightlifting, softball, Quad rugby, air guns, 9-ball, bowling, table tennis, archery, hand cycling, motorized wheelchair rally, power soccer and wheelchair slalom, which is a timed obstacle course.
“The National Veterans Wheelchair Games give our nation’s disabled veterans the opportunity to once again enjoy rigorous athletic competition,” said Anthony J. Principi, secretary of Veterans affairs.
“Every year these heroes demonstrate their talent, stamina and determination at this outstanding event, the same qualities they exhibited when helping preserve our nation’s freedom.”
Joseph L. Fox Sr., president of the paralyzed Veterans of America, also praises this special breed of athlete.
“These athletes represent the epitome of courage and determination,” Fox said. “These men and women are role models not only for having served their country in the military, but also for their ability to rise above their disabilities in competition to achieve their personal bests.”
Events will be contested at the Edward Jones Dome, Forest Park, St. Louis Zoo and other venues. Admission is free to all events. The public is invited to call (314) 894-6602 for more information.
Jim Spencer of Sullivan, Mo., the 2002 St. Louis Wheelchair Athlete of the year, said, “The Wheelchair Games are a life-changing event for the athlete as well as the spectator.”
Starman echoes those same kind of sentiments.
“You just have to get out and do things,” he said.
Such as living life to the fullest.
By Steve Eighinger
Herald-Whig Staff Writer