Invictus Games competitor August O'Niell is used to 'prove-yourself moments'
By THOMAS NEUMANN via ESPN, May 10, 2016, 9:05 PM ET
ORLANDO, Fla. -- August O'Niell memorably delivered the Invictus Games flag to Sunday's Opening Ceremony by rappelling from a helicopter and entering Champion Stadium with his service dog, Kai, meeting him in front of 10,000 spectators and a national television audience.
The U.S. Air Force staff sergeant and pararescueman, who grew up in Maine and Florida, was shot during a rescue mission in Afghanistan five years ago and later had his lower left leg amputated as a result of the injury. ESPN.com caught up with him to discuss his military background and experience competing in swimming and sitting volleyball at the Invictus Games.
How were you injured, and what was the road to recovery like for you?
O'Niell: I was injured July 15, 2011, in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan. Basically, we had a mission to go out and rescue a team of Marines that was taking fire and had at least three critically injured. When our two helicopters got over the zone, mine was the helicopter that had to mark the zone and pop up over the smoke -- kind of to draw fire, but more to show the other helicopter where to go down. We drew the fire from the ground team up toward us, and unfortunately [there was] a lucky shot. A round bounced off the door and came down through my left knee and out the right side of it and down through my right calf and then out again.
When I woke up in [Camp] Bastion, they told me that I was leaving [Afghanistan]. I told them that I wasn't leaving until I got my re-enlistment paperwork. I don't know who was in the hospital that heard me, but someone with a lot of brass heard it. By the time I got to Landstuhl [Germany], my paperwork was all ready for me to sign. I was lucky enough that my older brother, who is also a pararescueman -- he's a combat rescue officer -- his team actually flew him to Landstuhl to make sure that I was OK and be there with me. He was able to swear me in from my hospital bed. That was an awesome thing.
They brought me back to San Antonio, Texas, where I went through three and a half years and 20 surgeries. I made the decision to have the leg amputated above the knee after [the 20th] surgery didn't work out. Once I made that decision, there was no looking back, really. I opted to keep it for a few months so that I could participate in the Warrior Games in September of that year. I did pretty well -- I got five gold medals in swimming there.
I've been pushing forward ever since. Once that I realized I was able to walk well and able to run again and everything like that, I knew that I had a chance to go back to my job. That's all that I wanted to do, and through a lot of fighting and prove-yourself moments, I was able to be reinstated and fully brought back to duty.
Can you describe your determination to keep serving your country?
O'Niell: I love my job. I love what we do. I love our [pararescue] motto: "These things I do, that others may live." You do a lot to become a pararescueman, and it's a really grueling selection process and training. Once you're done with it, you start doing the job and get in with your team and the brotherhood that you build with everybody is second to none. I miss it all the time, and I was just ready to get back to my team and help my guys and start bringing people home again.
The whole time I was deployed before this happened, I was having a ball. It's weird to say. In warring, you're not supposed to be having fun, but I was having a great time out there, doing what we do.
Has your job changed because of the injury?
O'Niell: I'm qualified for everything in my job, but since I've been out for so long, I have to be recurrent on everything. So it's basically the same thing I would do when you first get your job, you have to go through a mission qualifying training for a while -- before you're able to be deployed. That's pretty much what I'm going for right now.
You were a swimmer, but not competitive, prior to your injury. What inspired you to get started in competition?
O'Niell: The Air Force Wounded Warrior program had been getting in touch with me. They knew my job as a pararescueman, and they were like, 'He's gotta be good in the pool.' The pool has always been kind of a sanctuary for me, where I go and calm down. I didn't want to turn it into a job, so I was really reluctant. But we had a camp for the [Pacific Air Forces] Games in Hawaii, and that was actually the first time I ever did a competition for swimming -- and I loved it. So I've been doing it for adaptive sports [for about two and a half years].
Did it take long to acclimate in sports after the leg was amputated?
O'Niell: Swimming came fairly easily. I just naturally started doing things that I didn't even realize I was doing to keep stable in the water. With just kicking on one side, your body tends to roll too much to the side that doesn't have something to hold it back up. But after somebody actually filmed me in the water, I noticed that naturally as I was swimming, my foot would kick one to the right, one to the left, one to the right, one to the left, and it was already stabilizing me. I didn't do it consciously, I just immediately started doing it when I swam.
What was the experience like rappelling out of the helicopter and delivering the Invictus Games flag in front of 10,000 people?
O'Niell: Flying is one of my favorite things, anyway. Then being able to come down and have Kai meet me and seeing how he runs to me, it's a great feeling. Then, of course, being able to come into an arena full of people who are just like me -- all the wounded warriors and their all their families watching. It was awesome.
Can you describe the emotion of winning the gold medal in sitting volleyball?
O'Niell: That was the most intense match I've ever been a part of. To come home with the gold is amazing, [because] the U.K. did awesome ... The crowd kept us hyped up. The way the [momentum went] back and forth, it kept the crowd hyped, and they kept us hyped. It was the gold medal match, and that's how it should be.
What do the Invictus Games mean to you?
O'Niell: From a physical aspect, I've never had to train harder for games than I've had to train to come here. It kind of gives you hope for the whole world, being that we can all come together and compete like this. All of our wounded warriors are here. It's actually very inspiring to see everybody on a stage like this, coming together to compete against guys like this from all over the world.