Road to recovery leads vet to Hood to Coast

Vancouver's Chip Sell was injured in Iraq in 2003

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 
photoChip Sell is one of a dozen wounded war vets running in Hood to Coast.

31st Hood to Coast Relay

When: Today and Saturday.

Course: 199 miles from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood to the beach at Seaside, Ore. The course is divided into 36 legs. Most teams have 12 runners who do three legs apiece.

Teams: 1,050.

Portland to Coast Walk: 400 teams of 12 will do the 129-mile walk.

Portland to Coast High School Challenge: 50, 12-runner, high school cross country teams.

On the Web:www.hoodtocoast.com

Getting active

Oregon Disability Sports (www.oregondisabilitysports.net) and Disabled Sports USA (www.dsusa.org) provide opportunities for disabled people to participate in a wide variety of sports.

Team River Runner (www.teamriverrunnerpdx.org) offers opportunities for disabled people to participate in river sports such as kayaking.

Chip Sell is in for the long run. And with each step, the shrapnel in his right knee will remind the Vancouver man that he is fortunate he is to be sharing the challenge of the Hood to Coast Relay with 11 other wounded service men.

"I have a chance to be engaged in the community rather than falling out of society," Sell said.

For the third year in a row, Team Warfighter Sports will tackle the 197-mile relay race from Mount Hood to Seaside, Ore. On Friday, teams depart in waves from Timberline Lodge, arriving on the Seaside sand sometime Saturday.

Team Warfighter Sports runners' disabilities include amputation, spinal cord injury, nerve and muscle damage, visual impairment and traumatic brain injury. The team is sponsored by Standard Insurance Company in partnership with Disabled Sports USA.

Sell, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2003 while serving in Iraq, ran with Team Warfighter Sports last summer.

He is hoping that this time his three legs of the Hood to Coast are a bit less taxing. But jitters aside, he is thrilled to participate again.

"I feel truly blessed to be part of something that is bigger than a race itself," Sell said.

On July 3, 2003, while serving as a field medical assistant with the 915th Forward Surgical Team near Balad, Iraq, Sell was significantly injured by a mortar attack. In the aftermath, Sell knew he could breathe and could walk. But it took time before he understood how his life was changed.

The injuries to his face, arm and leg healed over time. The brain injury and the post-traumatic stress persist. Sell and his wife Marnie have called Vancouver home for seven years. They have a 6-year-old daughter, Victoria.

Sell spent about four

months after the attack recuperating at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. He said he was torn between a desire to return to the battlefield and a desire to return home.

"You want to go back because you feel like you're abandoning the people who need you," he said.

In an effort to return to "as close to a normal life as I can," Sell briefly returned to the workforce.

The effects of the injury make it difficult for Sell to concentrate. He found that a full-time job was so mentally taxing that working left him with no energy anything beyond the job. To cope, he began withdrawing from life.

Sell credits Marnie with recognizing the situation and for helping him get assistance from the Veteran's Administration and from the Army.

In 2008, five years from the mortar attack that changed his life, Sell was in Washington, D.C., for treatment when a bike ride along the Potomac River shifted Sell's focus.

After spotting a group of kayakers, he joined the group of patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and rediscovered his love for the water and the enjoyment of a group activity.

"I started paddling with them, and started to open up a bit more," Sell said.

The power of sports participation to help veterans heal -- and to give them a renewed sense of belonging to a community -- became apparent to the Sells during that visit to Washington.

"Sports is a great equalizer," Marnie said.

A three-sport athlete at Riddle High School in southern Oregon, Sell said his dreams of playing big-time football ended at the 1987 Oregon Shrine All-Star Game, where he learned that there were plenty of bigger and faster players.

These days, Chip Sell focuses on helping others discover zest for life through kayaking. He volunteers for Team River Runner, which organizes boating and paddling trips for military veterans. He and Marnie are also strong advocates for the U.S. Disability Sports Association and its local chapter, Portland-based Oregon Disability Sports.

"It took me getting injured to really open my eyes that I can help not only myself, but help others," Sell said.

He hopes that participating in the Hood to Coast Relay can do that. His goal is to inspire and empower others who face significant challenges in life.

"My goal is to enjoy being with a team that I feel really passionate about," he said. "I see how much good can come from being involved and working through difficult challenges."