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Recovering commandos training at MacDill for next Warrior Games

TAMPA — For Army 1st Sgt. Jarrid "Jay" Collins, the road back from a devastating injury has been long and often solitary.

Collins, 41, is a Green Beret medic with the 7th Special Forces Group. After being twice injured, once when he fell off a roof and down a stairwell during a mortar blast in Afghanistan, Collins opted for amputation of his left leg below the knee in 2014

Three months later, he took part in a triathlon, and he’s run in several marathons. In April, he plans to run the Boston Marathon.

"It gets kind of lonely training for a marathon," Collins said.

But Collins has plenty of company in his workouts this week.

He is one of more than 25 wounded, ill and injured commandos training with the U.S. Special Operations Command team for the upcoming Department of Defense Warrior Games. The Warrior Games were established in 2010 to help in the recovery of wounded military personnel and to expose them to sports.

Last year, about 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans took part in the games, held in Chicago, representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, SOCom, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force.

The athletes compete in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

This year’s games will be held June 2-9 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And next year, the games come to Tampa, hosted by SOCom.

On Monday, Collins joined a half-dozen teammates taking instructions at MacDill Air Force Base from Jerome Avery, Team SOCom’s sprint coach.

"This is awesome," said Collins, who is training for his first Warrior Games. "Working with a team again is amazing. The guys and gals are out here pushing each other. It’s good to have that camaraderie again."

Like Collins, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Tiffany Hudgins, 39, finds working with teammates again invigorating. She suffered a traumatic brain injury after an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan and is now working at SOCom on the Women in Special Operations Forces program.

"It’s good to be out here, being among others and maintaining our competitive challenge," said Hudgins, who is training for her second Warrior Games.

As Collins and Hudgins cooled down after running, retired Army master sergeant Joe Roberts heaved a shot put ball that landed with a thud.

Being part of Team SOCom "is good not just for the athletics, but it’s great being able to be out here to support each other," said Roberts. Roberts, 45, suffered a traumatic brain injury after an IED blast in Baghdad and is competing in his first Warrior Games.

It will be the eighth games for Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, two as a competitor — the maximum allowed.

Del Toro was serving as a communications officer in Afghanistan when his vehicle was hit by an IED and he was badly burned. Now 45, he’s a mentor for members of Team SOCom.

"A lot of mentors like to say, ‘Nice job’ but I like to lead by example," Del Toro said, after taking sprint lessons from Avery. "If they can see my broken butt running, then they have no excuses."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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