Eight-time world-champion logroller and Iraq war veteran J.R. Salzman is covering this year’s Warrior Games for The American Legion’s Burn Pit blog. Wounded, ill and injured servicemembers are set to compete in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 30 to May 3.
In 2006, while serving with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, Salzman lost his arm in an IED attack. He returned to dominate his sport even as he adjusted to his new prosthetic limb. Salzman spoke recently to The American Legion Magazine.
Q: You were a world champion log roller, and then 9/11 hits, and you decide it’s time for you to serve your country. Tell me what your thinking was when you joined, and what your long term plans were at that time.
A: Like most Americans, 9/11 hit me like a punch in the stomach. I was no longer a young American looking back on history, I was living it. After two years of mulling it over, my mind was made up. In the middle of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I joined the Minnesota Army National Guard. My plans were to serve a six year contract, go on a couple deployments, and come home. I realized doing so would mean missing out on things like log rolling, but serving my country would be well worth the sacrifice. I am proud that I made the decision, and I would do it all over again.
Q: Some reports have said that when you got hit, the first thing you wanted to make sure of was that your feet were okay so you could go back to your sport. Tell me about your recovery, and how quickly you knew you could compete again.
A: After we were struck by an IED in Baghdad, I was still sitting inside my blown up HMMWV while the medic applied a tourniquet to my missing right arm. He kept apologizing over and over, saying how sorry he was for what happened to me. I said, “Hey man, it’s all good. I still have my legs, I can still log roll.” I had always said that whatever happened to me, as long as I came home with my legs I would be happy. After I was injured, I knew I had a long road ahead of me. But I always knew in my heart that I would be a world champion log roller again, I just needed to figure out a new way of getting back to that point. I had to adapt and overcome.
Q: You’ve been open about having some issues with TBI, and how it affects your memory, as a student; do you sometimes get disgruntled that you have to spend more time studying and learning things than some of your fellow students?
A: TBI, like PTSD or losing a limb, presents its own unique challenges to be addressed. Of all the challenges I have faced during my recovery, TBI is currently one of the most insurmountable. I used to have finely honed concentration from years of competing in log rolling. Now I have the concentration level of someone with severe ADHD. The memory loss, and the inability to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds affects every aspect of my life from school, to work, to log rolling, to cooking dinner. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will return my brain to the way it used to be. I have encountered other wounded Veterans who have TBI, but no physical wounds, who said they wished they had lost a limb too so at least people could see their injuries. It can be that frustrating. I can put on my prosthetic arm and – for the most part - go about my day like I used to. I cannot take a magic pill and have the same cognitive abilities that I once had.
Q: The Warrior Games in Colorado seem a natural fit for someone who returned to world athletic competition like you have, what role do you think sports can play in the recovery of our wounded and ill service-members.
A: Some wounded Veterans are able to return to activities they used to do, while others are looking to fill a void. For instance, I was fortunate enough to continue log rolling, but –with the loss of my right hand - I could no longer return to racing or riding snowmobiles, something quite popular during Wisconsin winters. That void was filled by learning to snowboard at the Vail Veterans Program in Colorado. In fact, I attribute a large part of my recovery at Walter Reed to learning to snowboard. It taught me that, although my life has been seriously and permanently altered, I can not only try new activities, but succeed at them as well. So for some wounded Veterans it is about returning to the life they once knew. For others it is about new beginnings. I think the end result is the same, which is overcoming challenges and enjoying life.
Q: What’s next for JR Salzman, what’s the dream?
A: First and foremost, I would like to win a couple more world titles in log rolling. I currently have eight, which puts me in fourth place for the most men’s world titles. I would like to retire with ten. Eventually (if I can concentrate long enough) I would like to sit down and finish my book about my experiences and everything I have overcome. Aside from that I’m going to continue enjoy life with my friends and family, and just see where life takes me.
Follow Salzman’s blog: “Lumberjack in a Desert”