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Staff Sgt. Michael J Carden, Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - 06.02.2009
Nearly 700 American military veterans from conflicts ranging from World War II to the Persian Gulf war arrived here today to prove that their best days are still ahead of them as they prepare to compete in the 23rd Annual National Veterans Golden Age Games.
The games are the world's largest sports and recreational competition for veterans ages 55 and older. They will begin tomorrow and will run through June 5. Athletes compete in swimming, bicycling, shuffleboard, air rifle and many other events in various divisions based on their ages and handicaps. Separate divisions include ambulatory, visually-impaired and wheelchair.
"The Golden Age Games are a marvelous way to get out of the house and get some fellowship and camaraderie," said Kenneth Kenney, a 70-year-old retired Airman. "You really miss the team-building and camaraderie you experience in the military once you're away from it."
Kenney said before he began training for the games two years ago, there wasn't a whole lot to keep him busy at home in Cheyenne, Wyo. But that changed after he learned about the games from some fellow veterans at his local Veterans Affairs hospital. Since then, the Vietnam War veteran has been swimming, walking and lifting weights regularly in anticipation of this year's competition. Training is a part of his every day life again, he said.
"The games keep us active and gives us something to look forward to and shoot for," he said. "I'll be a part of these games every year until I just can't compete anymore."
"Rolling" Joe Velasquez, 60, said the games are specifically geared towards veterans like Kenney and himself. Having the games to look forward to and train for each year has made drastic improvements in the lives of elder veterans, Velasquez said.
"Just look around the room and at the field of competitors," said the California native and retired Navy senior chief petty officer. "They're healthier, they're working out and training and they're happier than they've been in years.
Also, many of the competitors don't have a lot of family and live in convalescence homes. So even though the competitors are trying to outdo one another, when they compete, they're forging important bonds and friendships, he added.
After 21 years of involvement and three years of competing in the Veterans Golden Age Games, Velasquez said he's seen first-hand the positive impact the games have on his fellow veterans. But what he looks forward to the most is the smiling faces of the competitors.
"People tell me every year that the two things they look forward to in life as they get older are: waking up in the morning and competing in the Golden Age Games in the summer," he said. "You know their lives are better because of these games."
The Golden Age Games are open to all U.S. military veterans ages 55 and older who receive care at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility. The games are co-sponsored by the VA, the Help Hospitalized Veterans non-profit organization and the Veterans Canteen Service. The Games are also a qualifying event every other year for the National Senior Olympic Games.