In October 2018, Retired Army Sergeant First Class Brant Ireland joined 550 wounded, ill, and injured service men and women from 18 allied nations in Sydney, Australia for the Invictus Games. It was his second time competing in various sporting activities at this annual event, founded by Prince Harry. He also had the opportunity to represent the United States in 2017 in Toronto. But the journey to this point hasn’t been easy.
Growing up, Ireland was a huge sports fanatic. “I played anything and everything. I loved to compete,” he said. “There isn’t much more, except for my family, that is such a big part of my life.” In high school, he played football, baseball, and basketball, serving as captain of both the basketball and baseball teams. Ireland continued his baseball pursuits at the collegiate level, moving around in an effort to chase the dream. “It was an Individual pursuit. Sometimes there is a fine line between showcasing your talents and the team effort.” He ended up at NIA powerhouse Indiana Tech, playing the position of centerfield. “I wanted a degree in baseball,” he said (ultimately earning one in business administration instead). “I had to go to class just to stay on the field.”
He was getting looked at for the draft, but a couple things would happen during his college years that would make a significant impact on his career and future decisions. During his senior year, he tore his hamstring. And the year prior (his junior year), September 11th happened. As a result, “another calling was in the back of my head.” So in July 2003, Ireland enlisted in the U.S. Army and joined as a Special Forces recruit. “A friend of mine and I decided to join up together after graduating.” He would go off to Infantry School, then Jump School (at Fort Benning), then Fort Bragg. In August 2006, he became a part of the 3rd Special Forces Group becoming a Special Forces Medic. In 2010, he would also support Special Forces Intel. Although, “once a medic, always a medic,” he said.
In total, Ireland would deploy on seven combat tours, all to Afghanistan, which he calls “my home away from home.” On June 19, 2013, Ireland was on a night combat ops mission with Afghan Commandos in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad. Up to that point, he had come away unscathed from other fire fights and been able to avoid IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices). Shortly after getting off the Chinook helicopter, he fell off a drop off in the terrain, breaking his left leg. “I knew it was pretty bad, even though I was lucky enough to not have a knee injury while playing sports.” His knee dislocated backwards from all the weight he was carrying. The medical team treating the injury couldn’t find a pulse in his foot. He was told he would never be able to run, swim, or bike again. “Everything that I knew and enjoyed was gone.”
Ireland started resisting the medical treatment and advice. “I was not having any of that, as people break their leg all the time,” he said. “I told them to just put it back together.” He would spend the next two years in and out of surgeries. “I saw specialist after specialist trying to rebuild the leg. It was the worst two years of my life, and my family’s life.”
“My immediate goal was to deploy again with my guys.” He would get fitted with an IDEO (Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis) brace and redeploy with his unit from January 2015 until April 2015 in a support role. But nearly two years from the date of the injury, Ireland decided to go through an elective amputation above the knee, which took place at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He remembers his sentiments from the time clearly. “I thought it is gone and there is no looking back now.”
Through Operation Comfort, a Disabled Sports USA chapter in San Antonio, Ireland was able to participate in adaptive sports. “Luckily I was in an environment where adaptive sports is encouraged and available.” His first experience, one month after the amputation, was with a handcycle. “Handcycling was new to me. But my wife Tanya was able to join me and be right next to me,” he said. “So this experience helped us redefine our lives. It also helped that my wife is an expert at tough love.”
“Cycling was great as an activity but wasn’t quenching my competitive drive.” Also during that time, Ireland says that there was some depression, some self-loathing going on. His physical therapist was regularly encouraging him to check out sled hockey, but resisted the idea at first. “I thought it had a stigma, that it was not a real sport. That it was more about moral victories. At the time, that was not what I was needing.”
He eventually would check out sled hockey, and his impression quickly changed. “During my first practice, I got my clock cleaned by Paralympian Rico Roman. In that second, I just felt this fire ignite- it lit this fire of competitiveness. I was basically lying down on the ice with a smile on my face. It was that first little piece of me that I got back.”
After the sled hockey experience, his perspective changed. “This adaptive sports thing is for me. Adaptive athletes are phenomenal athletes. Now living back in North Carolina, he is working to build a sled hockey team there but also playing with a team out of Nashville, Tennessee. He has also participated in other adaptive sports, including completing the Army 10 Miler and trying out Wheelchair Rugby.
Which brings us back to the recent Invictus Games, where Ireland also served as co-captain of the USA team. He had previous competed in two Warrior Games and therefore competed against some of the same guys that were now part of the same team. At the 2018 games, he would win two silver medals, one at the Cycling Time trial. “It was the first medals of the game, which was exciting.” The second medal would come in the Criterium (crit) road race for thirty minutes. He started at the back of the pack. “By the time I got through the field, I felt like I was chasing a ghost (the guy from Great Britain that won gold). He set the pace and led the pack the whole way.”
In reflecting on the two silvers he won at the Invictus Games, Ireland says “it all started there in San Antonio with Wednesday morning bike rides.”