Disability Identity and the Culture of Veteran Athletics in Modern America

Disability Identity and the Culture of Veteran Athletics in Modern America

In May 2020, Prince Harry will inaugurate the fifth Invictus Games in The Hague, Netherlands. An international sporting event for wounded, disabled, and sick veterans of modern war that began in 2014, the Invictus Games will bring together five hundred athletes from over a dozen countries competing in events like wheelchair basketball, cycling, and archery. According to its website, the event harnesses the “power of sport to inspire recovery.” Meaning “unconquered,” the term “invictus” and its games join a tenuous history of disabled veteran sports and a rhetoric of overcoming and inspiration. Although triumphant, this kind of language, often used to describe disabled veteran sports, has done little to create more inclusive spaces for all disabled people and does arguably less to spur difficult but crucial conversations about war trauma.

Although its goals may be slightly different than those of its predecessors, the Invictus Games are part of over one hundred years of history of sports for disabled veterans. For instance, First World War military medical departments integrated sports into rehabilitation programs, seeking to “rebuild” men physically and psychologically wounded in the war. One example, the Inter-Hospital Telegraphic Field Meet in August 1919, had patients from Fort McPherson and Fort Des Moines compete against each other. The results of events like the fifty-yard wheelchair race, the “efficiency walk” for patients with artificial legs, and the baseball throw for one-armed men were broadcast in hospital newspapers throughout the country.1 The goal of events like this was partially to inspire veterans to “make good” by situating their identities within early twentieth-century notions of manhood that emphasized rugged individualism and forced disabled bodies to replicate the movements and actions of non-disabled ones.

Many modern disabled veteran athletes use prosthetics, which also has a history dating back to the First World War. In Germany, orthopedists and engineers saw themselves as “rescuing” wounded veterans’ futures and thus securing the long-term health of the nation through rehabilitation and prosthetics.2 And though these appliances were often tied to economic capability, they were also part of an effort to recapture masculine vigor through sport. French veteran and boxer Eugène Criqui, for example, suffered a jaw wound from a sniper bullet at Verdun in 1915, but he successfully returned to boxing using an artificial jaw. His sporting reputation was tied to his wound and prosthetic; he was nicknamed, after all, “Iron Jaw.”3

Disabled sports, and the prosthetic technologies featured in them, modernized alongside increasingly advanced warfare. The Paralympic Games were born in 1960 out of smaller sporting organizations that centered on disabled veterans, highlighting predominantly male, wheelchair-based competition–often at the expense of other disabilities–and coupling with the cities that hosted the Olympic Games.4 Now in the twenty-first century, the prolonged and destructive wars in the Middle East have once again produced “potential” athletes for increasingly high-profile disabled veteran sporting events.

In addition to the Paralympic and Invictus games, the U.S. Department of Defense organizes the Warrior Games, the first of which took place in 2010. The rhetoric surrounding the Warrior Games is remarkably similar to that of the Invictus Games and its predecessors. Admiral Mike Mullen stated in the closing ceremony that their “willingness to participate in the same and ability to overcome adversity [could] inspire others to do the same,” while General Victor Renuart described competitors as an “inspiration.”5

The incredibly diverse disability community contests rhetoric that uses disabled people as an “inspiration” for “overcoming.” The social model of disability disputes the idea that it is the disability that needs to be overcome, arguing instead that the problem is the social, cultural, institutional, and structural barriers that keep disabled people from participating fully in society. “Inspiring” stories do little to make the changes necessary for a more accessible world. As Stella Young argues in her Ted Talk, “No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.” More recently, following a performance by a blind and autistic piano player on America’s Got Talent, host Terry Crews insisted society “erase” the “DIS” and highlight the “ABILITY!” This prompted many to challenge Crews’s thinking. Disability scholar Dr. Sami Schalk’s important Twitter thread, for example, explored the importance of terminology, representation, and not viewing the terms disability or disabled as something inherently bad.

An important element of this pushback from disabled people is the emphasis on embracing disability as a source of personal and political identity. But while disability scholars and activists work hard to change how people think and communicate about the topic, there doesn’t seem to be much impetus for change in the rhetoric surrounding disabled veterans, and of sporting events in particular. Many veterans in these events readily place the “athlete,” rather than “disabled,” at the forefront of their identity, in a complex negotiation called “passing.” According to historians Jeffrey Brune and Daniel Wilson, passing is “the way people conceal social markers of impairment” in order to appear “normal.” The process “helps create concepts of normality” by focusing on ideal images of the body.6 In short, passing is about adhering to markers of “normalcy,” like silencing pain, and thereby displacing the disability identity.

As disability historian Mike Rembis argues, while disabled sports can be an important way of increasing awareness of disability, access, and legitimacy, there are some drawbacks. Athletes can feel forced to conceal parts of their identity (or body) and present a public self that minimizes or erases their impairment to better fit into dominant (non-disabled) culture.7 Take, for example, a recent article for the 2019 Warrior Games, in which author Ernest Hooper argues, “You’ll see the blade of a prosthetic leg…you’ll see amputees swim faster than you ever imagined…But if you see the technical tools these athletes use in competition, if you see their disabilities instead of their abilities, you won’t really see the Department of Defense’s Warrior Games.” Passing, here, means that supreme athletic ability should deflect attention, or entirely erase, disability from public view.

Staff Sergeant Christian Bagge, who lost both legs in Iraq when a roadside bomb hit his Humvee, runs with President George W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Many, but not all, disabled veteran athletes seek to hide their disability identities. John Kinder explores this dynamic in the beginning of his book Paying with Their Bodies.8 He opens with a story about Christian Bagge, a U.S. Army amputee invited on a jog with George W. Bush in 2006 and wore shorts to show his prosthetic legs. Kinder situates this within Bagge’s broader refusal to hide the trauma that war inflicted on his body, as he defied military officials who wanted him to cover his stumps during his Purple Heart ceremony. Instead, he wore shorts.9 And U.S. Paralympian Brad Snyder, a veteran blinded in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, has negotiated his identity as well, arguing in his memoir Fire in My Eyes, “My success in the Paralympics is not an example of how I ‘sprung back’ to my original form. That’s because there is no such thing as an original form.”10 Bagge and Snyder don’t seek to pass, but instead draw attention to their disabilities as a kind of political statement.

Here, we can return to Rembis’s argument about passing in disabled sports. He argues that the language and imagery of passing only serves to benefit the military and those who profit from war. Positioning wounded, disabled, or sick veterans as athletes who have triumphed over disability helps to obscure the costs of war and deflect difficult conversations about war and trauma. Rembis concludes, “Among other things, the unrealistic, masculinized calls for self-reliance evoked by the messages of military leaders swiftly and powerfully forestall any type of collective criticism of military and Veterans Administration policy and practices and greatly limit any meaningful or transformative (for disabled veterans) responses to the trauma of wartime injury.”11

Events like the Warrior Games and Prince Harry’s Invictus Games–along with their commentators–have a responsibility to speak openly and intelligently about disability. One should not, as Hooper posits, focus uncritically on their abilities as athletes, but instead should take the opportunity to have difficult conversations about war. Additionally, the broader public must join scholars and activists in ridding our lexicon of overcoming language. None of this can be achieved fully, however, without critiquing the ways in which we speak about disabled veterans and war wounds. Decoupling warfare and the military from the disabilities they produce is dangerous and misleading, and it benefits no one except the state. Grappling with the realities of war wounds will not only help make disabled people’s lives better, but it might also help us finally reassess war itself. This has been a conversation at least a century in the making – and it’s well overdue. After all, the stories we tell matter.


  1. “Big Crowd Enjoys Contests at Fort: 110 Crippled Soldiers Take Part in Merry Making Games and Races,” The Des Moines Register, June 7, 1919, RG 112, Series UD 8 Box 13, Folder 353.8: Athletics & Amusements, US National Archives. Return to text.
  2. Heather Perry, Recycling the Disabled: Army, Medicine, and Modernity in WWI Germany (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 197. Return to text.
  3. Marjorie Gehrhardt, The Men with Broken Faces: Gueules Cassées of the First World War (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 89. Return to text.
  4. Mike Rembis, “Athlete First: A Note on Passing, Disability, and Sport,” in Brune and Wilson, eds., Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 111. Return to text.
  5. Rembis, “Athlete First,” 127. Return to text.
  6. Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson, eds., Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 2. Return to text.
  7. Rembis, “Athlete First,” 113. Return to text.
  8. See also David Serlin’s work on veteran Alex Minsky. David Serlin, “Introduction.” In Kathleen M. Brian and James W. Trent, Phallacies: Historical Intersections of Disability and Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1-3. Return to text.
  9. John M. Kinder, Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2-3. Return to text.
  10. Brad Snyder and Tom Sileo, Fire in my Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2016), 225-26. Return to text.
  11. Rembis, “Athlete First,” 128. Return to text.

Featured image caption: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lara Mastel, left, and veteran Marine Sgt. Gabby Graves-Wakes, right, pose at the medal podium with a Canadian competitor and Prince Harry of Wales after competing in the women’s recumbent bike time trial during the 2017 Invictus Games at High Park in Toronto, Ontario, September 26, 2017. © Department of Defense

Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.