Ability Athletics helps Wounded Warriors focus on strengths

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Max Rohn joined the Navy in 2007, he planned to make the military his career. He became a corpsman, and in 2009 found himself attached to a police transition team in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.

On May 2, 2009, Rohn’s team was on the way back from a mission when they encountered an IED (improvised explosive device). A convoy in front of Rohn’s found the device and cordoned off the area, so Rohn’s team was rerouted through Fallujah to get back to base.

“I was in the third vehicle of a three-vehicle convoy. The first vehicle was stopped by a big tractor-trailer and then on the left side of the road they were shooting at us from rooftops,” Rohn said. In the attack, he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“I put my own tourniquet on and treated my own wound. We finally got around the blockade and decided to ground evacuate back to our base,” he said.

Rohn at first thought his leg would be saved, but complications caused an infection. Ultimately, the decision was made to amputate.

“There wasn’t really a plan after that. It was just kind of … try to piece together your life as best you can,” Rohn said.

Rohn weightlifting

Max Rohn uses a special prosthetic leg for weightlifting that allows him to squat using proper form, with both feet on the ground and his weight over his heels.

Image: Annemarie Mountz

Rohn got involved in the Wounded Warrior Games as something to focus on other than being in the hospital. That’s where he met Teri Jordan, Ability Athletes coach and disability recreation programs coordinator at Penn State. Jordan, who has extensive national and international experience and success in coaching track and field, had been asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to coach the Navy Safe Harbor track and field athletes for Wounded Warriors.

The first time they met was in Port Hueneme, California, and Rohn had not yet had his amputation. The next year, after his amputation, they met again at the Wounded Warrior Games in Colorado. Rohn competed in swimming, track and field, volleyball and basketball.

“It was a lot, but I did really well. I think I got second in shotput and second in discus, and was kind of hooked from there. I competed again the next year and did a lot better, and that’s when Coach Jordan and I started talking about possibly attending Penn State,” Rohn said.

“I just saw him blossom,” Jordan said. “And he just loved to throw. I said, ‘I think you have the talent to make it to the next level and even make it to the Paralympic team.’ A couple of years later he took me up on it, and now he’s here.”

Bonfiglio and Rohn

Max Rohn, right, and Ed Bonfiglio, at the Rose Parade, Dec. 30, 2013.

Image: Photo provided

Edward Bonfiglio, who met Rohn at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, also is an Ability Athlete at Penn State. “We were injured about three months apart from each other,” Rohn said.

“We’re both Navy corpsman. We both did jobs attached with Marine units. I was over in Afghanistan when I got shot. Max was over in Iraq when he got blown up. We both wound up doing amputation,” Bonfiglio said. “Max is one of my best friends. We’re always there for moral support for each other.”

Bonfiglio first met Jordan when he accompanied Rohn on his visit to Penn State.

“She showed me around Penn State, everything they had to offer for people in my situation. She’s always there to help you out, making sure we’re taken care of, and making sure we’re on top of our academics. We’re athletes, but also students so she’s worried about that. She’s always looking out for our well-being,” Bonfiglio said about Jordan.

Jordan said she thinks Ability Athletics helps Wounded Warriors and others with physical challenges because “we all like to move, and that’s what Ability Athletes is all about. It’s not thinking about what you don’t have. It’s thinking about what you DO have. Being able to move again and compete again and set goals and see your improvement — we all like to do that.”

Kortney Clemons, a Penn State Ability Athlete who won national titles in weightlifting and track, agrees. “The program helped me by encouraging me to focus on my abilities and not my limitations,” he said. “I first heard about Ability Athletics at a USA Paralympic powerlifting clinic near Philadelphia. It was there I met Coach Teri Jordan. She invited me to visit University Park, and I was drawn to the great tradition, facilities and the intimacy the program would provide to me as a newly injured serviceman.”

For Rohn, Ability Athletics is more than just an athletic team. “We’re almost family, because this is such a personal problem. That’s what makes Ability Athletics so different. We’re competing athletically, but we still have problems just doing daily tasks.”

Curtis Markle

Ability Athlete Curtis Markle threw out the first pitch at the State College Spikes Military Appreciation game this past summer.

Image: Annemarie Mountz

The first teammate Rohn met was Curtis Markle. “He’s paralyzed from pretty much the belly button down. So now I get to help Curtis. Curtis gets to help me. Ed gets to help both of us. We get to help Ed, with everything we’re doing in life,” Rohn said.

“Whenever you have a teammate that can relate to what you have gone through, it not only encourages you to be a better athlete but it also strengthens you as a person. I don’t know how else to put it, but I just love those guys,” Markle said.

Markle was a wrestler for Bald Eagle Area High School and attended West Point. After his injury he earned two associate degrees at a school in Johnstown and then moved back to Centre County. He played wheelchair basketball in Johnstown, and was happy to learn about Ability Athletics’ community outreach program, which included wheelchair basketball.

“To continue that here filled a big hole for me. It gave me the opportunity to be athletic again," said Markle.

Markle enrolled in Penn State and is studying environmental systems engineering. He credits Jordan for helping him overcome not only his physical challenges, but also those of being a returning adult student. “Basically anything you can possibly need she can find the way for you to get help,” he said.

Clemons also is very appreciative of the support Penn State provided to him. “I came to Penn State directly out of outpatient care and the support I received from the University assisted me with my transition to civilian life. I had a great experience at Penn State because of their love for veterans.”

Bonfiglio, who is back at Walter Reed temporarily and taking University Park classes online, has taken advantage of the many services provided.

“If there’s something I need to do they bend over backward to make it easier on me," he said. "Penn State is a great school, and they really do care about their veterans.”

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Last Updated September 30, 2015