By: Henry Howard
John “Gunny Ski” Szczepanowski’s Achilles was severely injured from his deployments during the Persian Gulf War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, doctors told the triathlete that he risked permanent damage if he continued to run on roads.
“I was told specifically my days of running are done,” said Szczepanowski, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2014 after 25 years of service. “My reply was my retirement years didn’t comprise of me sitting on a couch or doing nothing. I am a runner at heart. I am a triathlete and endurance athlete, so when you take away that ability it starts to create more issues within my own self. Running, cycling and swimming all make me feel very alive.”
Szczepanowski wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept looking for alternative solutions. The initial breakthrough was securing a specially designed brace for his right foot and lower leg that helps limit the pounding on his Achilles.
Then, a couple of months ago, The American Legion stepped in with a gift from its Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program. Szczepanowski, a member of American Legion Post 434 in Chula Vista, Calif., received a treadmill that allows him to maintain his training for triathlons and marathons.
“It’s very humbling,” he said, adding that he has “a large debt of gratitude to The American Legion for doing that. It’s something that I use every day. What the Legion has given me is that daily dose of mental health cleansing right here in the comfort of my home.”
The treadmill is an integral part of his home gym. “If I had stolen moments here at the house I found myself there on the treadmill preparing,” Szczepanowski says of his home in Santee, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Diego. “I wanted to go in there and show whomever that had their eyes on me that there is no excuse in the world for you not to do something. You got to push yourself outside of that box. What that treadmill gave me was the ability to show others what U.S. veterans are capable of doing even outside of their service.”
Since receiving the treadmill, Szczepanowski has completed a handful of triathlons and has more scheduled for spring of 2016. During his training, he averages about 14 hours a week of running, swimming, biking and strength training. All together, he runs 500 to 600 miles, bikes up to 1,000 miles and swims between 10 and 20 miles to prepare for his events. A half Ironman triathlon is a 1.2-mile swim, followed immediately by a 56-mile bike ride and then a 13.1-mile run. His goal is to complete a full Ironman — double the distance in each discipline — at the world championships in Kona, Hawaii.
“My license plate says disabled veteran, not disabled person,” Szczepanowski said. “My neck and back are all screwed up. Does that mean I want to be a couch potato? No. I have other ambitions in life that I am trying to achieve. Everything I do, I do for myself, my family and my community. When they do my eulogy, I want them to say he was a hell of a triathlete, a good father, a good husband and a good community liaison.”
When Richard “Sunny” Farrand first met Szczepanowski, he was providing assistance to other wounded Marines to get them the benefits they needed. It was a no-brainer for Farrand to help Szczepanowski get the treadmill he needed.
“To help him means that he can then continue to help others, and by extension, help The American Legion,” Farrand said.
Sherry Hill, commander of Post 434, said it’s inspiring to see Szczepanowski use the equipment made possible by OCW donations.
“There should be no fear by potential donors that we are going to squander the money,” said Hill, noting that 100 percent of OCW donations go toward assisting wounded veterans and service members with their recoveries. “We are going to use the money as promised. We are an organization of veterans serving veterans, and family members of veterans serving veterans.”
Szczepanowski, who describes himself as a “legacy Marine,” knows the Legion’s history of supporting veterans. His father is a member, as were other relatives.
“It’s always been my philosophy to try to pay it forward,” he said. “The good work The American Legion does is the kind of organization I want to affiliate myself with. Those are the right people I want to be around and those are the people I want to try to embrace, encourage and inspire are those like minded people.”