Nov 10 Miller helps veterans soldier on

Nov. 10, 2010, 6:55 p.m. (ET)
Kari Miller had served her country as a soldier in war-torn places such as Bosnia, but her life was permanently changed, oddly enough, when she was on leave in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

Miller, then 22, was a transportation management coordinator for the U.S. Army and was awaiting a promotion to officer at the time and she came home to spend the holidays with friends and family.

But on Dec. 19, 1999, as she was riding in the passenger seat of her friend's car, a drunk driver slammed into the back of her friend's vehicle at 80 mph. The car spun into a pole, pinning Miller to the passenger seat. Miller's friend was killed.

"I was basically crushed," Miller recalled. "I don't remember much else."

Surgeons amputated her right leg above the knee, her left leg just below it. Miller spent months in the hospital and in rehabilitation, but where many would succumb to feelings of self pity and sorrow, Miller was determined to soldier on.

Almost 11 years later, she is helping others do the same.

As an ambassador for the United States Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military Program, Miller, a member of the silver-medal winning women's sitting volleyball team during the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, meets with newly injured veterans while they recover at hospitals like Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital. She introduces them to the world of Paralympic sports, and she shows them they can have a life despite their injuries.

"Sports, there's a lot more than just the physical aspect of it,'' Miller said. "It's a way to get over it. For me, it was kind of hard to see myself as less than perfect. But when I got to be a member of a team again, when I saw that I was really good at something again, that was life changing."

Miller grew up running track and playing basketball. She joined the Army's delayed entry program in high school as a means of paying for college. In her four years as a member of the Army Reserve, Miller was activated for tours in Bosnia, Germany and South Korea.

Miller's competitive nature is part of what attracted her to the armed services; after her accident, it is what led her to try Paralympic sports.

"It's weird, before I got injured my mother and I saw this commercial and it was this person skiing down a mountain and the person only had one leg,'' Miller said. "I had never thought of disabled people as athletes.

"As soon as I got hurt that picture came into my head. It was one of the first things I remember thinking about."

Skiing wasn't exactly Miller's forte, but her family knew an attorney who played on a wheelchair basketball team and Miller decided to give that a try. Before she knew it, Miller was competing for the University of Illinois, the birthplace of collegiate wheelchair basketball.

Her talents earned Miller an invitation to try out for the national wheelchair basketball team, but at tryouts the "5-foot-nothing," 90-some pound forward struggled against competitors almost twice her size. Miller did not make the squad.

"It was an honor to be invited out, and I thought of it that way," she said. "But getting that experience, it sort of gave me the itch. I wanted to do more than just play in college."

A friend suggested sitting volleyball, a sport Miller knew little about aside from the skimpy shorts and tight shirts volleyball athletes typically wear.

Miller laughed as she recalled her thoughts of the sport at the time, saying, "I was like, 'No thanks, that's not for me. I'm not going out there naked.' ''

Her friend urged her to give it a try and when she finally did, Miller was shocked at the aggression and power she saw on the court.

She was hooked. But there was just one small problem.

"I sucked," Miller said. "My idea of volleyball was just getting the ball to the other side."

It took a couple of years, but Miller slowly picked up the nuances of the sport. She went on to become a starting player for Team USA when it took the silver medal at the 2010 Sitting Volleyball World Championships held last July in Miller's new home base of Edmond, Okla.

Sitting volleyball has taken Miller to Europe, Egypt and China.

"After Beijing I started thinking: What's the next thing I want to do?" Miller said. "I wanted to do something beyond just me."

That's when Miller got involved with the USOC Paralympic Military Program, an experience she said has given her much, much more than she ever could have imagined.

"I get to visit service members in the hospital," Miller said, "and I tell them, 'Hey, it's going to be OK. You're jacked up right now, but it's going to be OK. Trust me."

Miller organized Paralympic sporting events at the medical facilities to show her fellow veterans that they could still be active and competitive. Miller also serves as a Paralympic mentor where she meets with able-bodied and disabled people alike, educating them on what life is like for a double amputee.

Miller credited her family for getting her through her injury and the lengthy rehab that followed. Her family never let her wallow in her misery. They allowed her to grieve for her loss, but they expected her to continue being herself and living her life.

"With my accident, I think I was too dumb to even have that despair moment,'' Miller said. "I was just happy to be alive.

"I never sulked over my injury. That's just not who I am, that's not something my family would let me do. When my outfit doesn't go with my prosthetic, that's when I sulk a little. When I can't put on a hot pair of heels, that's when I sulk a little. But otherwise I'm just moving forward."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Annabelle Tometich is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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