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Disabled veterans take on Marathon challenge

15 Iraq war fighters to compete in race

Iraq war veterans Matthew Penland (left), 25, and Ryan Major, 24, spoke with the media after arriving at Logan International Airport in preparation for the Boston Marathon. Iraq war veterans Matthew Penland (left), 25, and Ryan Major, 24, spoke with the media after arriving at Logan International Airport in preparation for the Boston Marathon. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Matt Collette
Globe Correspondent / April 19, 2009
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After losing both legs in Iraq, then enduring months of painful recovery, 27-year-old Mike Minard doesn't consider the Boston Marathon much of a challenge.

"I haven't really thought much about it," said Minard, who grew up in Colorado, from the lobby of the Constitution Inn in Charlestown, where he and his teammates are staying before tomorrow's race.

Minard is one of 15 Iraq war veterans - all double amputees - slated to compete tomorrow in the Boston Marathon. They are part of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, run by the New York-based Achilles Track Club, which works to help disabled men and women compete in mainstream athletic events.

"Mentally and physically, it's tremendous for them," said Maureen Dunn, who helped coordinate the veterans' trip.

Dunn has been active in veterans causes since her husband, Joseph, served in the Vietnam War.

He was listed as missing after his plane was shot down over the South China Sea.

Training and participating in events like the Boston Marathon, Dunn said, help bring disabled veterans back into mainstream American society.

"They learn to be part of the world again, the world they worked to protect," Dunn said.

Thirteen of the men are registered in the wheelchair division; the remaining two participants plan to run using prosthetic legs.

Last year, eight veterans from the Freedom Team raced in the marathon. One of them, who is also racing tomorrow, is from Massachusetts: Pete Rooney, 27, of Williamsburg, will be racing in a wheelchair in what will be his fourth marathon.

"As a team, we all have a connection that goes even deeper than most," he said. "That part of it is really special. Not only being a disabled group but also a veteran's disabled group, that's really something."

Rooney said he enjoys competing in marathons because of the high level of physicality involved, something his injury had previously prevented him from doing.

"I like the feeling of being physically spent after being in a race," he said. "That was a feeling that I originally felt over there [in Iraq], and it's great to feel that again."

Ryan Major, who lost both his legs and several fingers in a December 2006 explosion in Iraq, has raced in several marathons with the Freedom Team. The 24-year-old lives in Silver Spring, Md., and goes regularly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for treatment.

Boston will be his third marathon.

"I got into it last summer, and I'm actually kind of hooked," he said.

Matt Penland, 26, from New York, said he was injured in Iraq on Oct. 6, 2006; he lost his right foot and left leg.

He started training for Boston, his first marathon, to regain the physique he had lost in treatment. "I ballooned up big time," he said.

The veterans will be honored before the start of this afternoon's Red Sox game.

Penland, who was wearing a Seattle Mariners jersey, said he wasn't a Red Sox fan but was excited about attending the game with the others, who he had come to know through the program.

Last year, when a veteran threw out the first pitch, Dunn recalled, Fenway Park erupted with applause and cheers.

"The entire 35,000 people stoop up and went crazy," she said.

Dunn said competing has helped the disabled veterans move past their wartime trauma.

"They want to finally be out of Iraq," she said.