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An Interview With John Register
John Register is the founder of the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Military Sports Program which used sports as a tool for the rehabilitation of wounded, ill, and injured, service members. His vision in 2004 was to create a peace event using sports to repair relationships between warring countries and their war injured through sport. Registers efforts led to him closing the deal for a $15 million funding authorization and appropriation for both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The funding led to the expansion of the USOPM sport program to 36 Army installations as well as Marine bases. The program also led to the creation of the DoD Warrior Games, which saw First Lady Michelle Obama and The Duke of Sussex (Prince Harry) open the games in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Registers 5 presentation on how to use sport for peace at Loughborough University in England assisted in paving the way for Prince Harry’s Invictus Games. Register was recognized for his vision by the American Association for People with Disabilities with the Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leadership Award. Since the start of this program thousands of injured service members and sports clubs have been impacted. Many military athletes have made Paralympic Teams and some, like Rico Roman, and Melissa Stockwell, are featured in the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs.
How long did you serve in the Military, what was your rank, and what did you do in the service?
I served for almost six years, from November 1988 until October of 1994. My highest rank was Corporal. I like to jokingly call myself the hardest-working Corporal in the United States Army. I had two job specialties. One was a 31 Charlie or a single Channel radio operator, and the other was Victor 9, working with tactical satellites. I was doing cell phone work with satellites in the early 90s. We didn’t have all of the technology and things that we have readily available in today’s day and age. We were building the technology of tomorrow.
What was the biggest reason that led you to join the Military?
I joined for two reasons. I wanted to continue to run track and field, and the Army has a World Class Athlete Program, which allows a soldier-athlete to train for the Olympic games. I thought I would qualify for this program. I would later assist in bringing the program to Fort Carson, Colorado, as well as open the program for Paralympic athletes. If the National governing body of sports said the athlete was a bona fide candidate to make an Olympic team, the Army would put you into the special services, and you could be on the World Class Athlete Program team.
The second reason was my wife and I were pregnant at the time with our first child John Jr., and I needed a steady job to pay for my growing family.
What are the most significant lessons that you took with you from your time in the Military?
One lesson I learned was the importance of timeliness. I’m not the best at being on time, but the military disciplined me in the sense that it taught me why things need to be punctual. Other people are relying on you to be there on time.
Many people have heard the saying that ‘freedom isn’t free,’ during my service, I realized that most people don’t join the military to serve their country. They often do it because of the benefits that come with the job. It is a means to an end. After some time in service, many want to stay and serve because they found community and belonging. I know I did. There was a brother and sisterhood that formed. At any given moment, you may be called to sacrifice your life for your country. True courage is to place your life ahead of someone else so that they can succeed, advance, and stay alive.
I found that when you are in the heat of the battle and the bullets are flying, no one is thinking about The United States of America. You are thinking about getting you and your battle buddy out of that fight. No one truly knows their character before the battle (who they are) until faced in the moment. Are you someone who runs away? Or are you someone who stays and fights for the team? You find your true character in the military because you are placed in extreme situations. You think you know who you are until you are tested. In the test, you discover who you truly are. Afterward, you either like who you are, or you dislike who you are, then you can choose to stay the same or change. I found that I was stronger than I thought I was. It is the discovery of truth. When truth outweighs fear, we commit to a courageous life.
As a black military veteran, what is your perspective on patriotism?
Patriotism is not just waving a flag. For example, I was at a dinner for Vietnam veterans, and I was the only black person in the room. They asked me if I thought there was a lack of patriotism amongst black veterans because they had asked other black veterans to come to the dinner. The black veterans decided not to come. So, I put down my fork, and I asked them, “When you were in Vietnam, how many of you ate with your black brothers and sisters? Did you share a meal and invite them over to your table?” After I said that, the room got silent, and I knew that none of them did. Then I asked, “Why would you think that they’re going to come over here when you treated them like that over Vietnam?” Many of them came from the south and racist state, so they were ashamed to be around the people of color at the time.
I asked them to think about what patriotism means. When you look at black history in war, take World War II, for example. We can agree that some of the greatest heroes in that time were the Tuskegee Airmen. They put their lives on the line, not for the glory but to protect the white men flying the bombing runs. When they got home, they didn’t receive recognition. They were spat on and desecrated, and some of them were even hung in their uniforms because of the racist mentality that they “better learn their place.” Yet, despite all of that, they fought to stretch our democracy. They fought to form a more perfect Union. I continued the legacy of service from my Uncles, who fought in WWII.
I think that the greater patriot is the one who fights for their country, even if their country doesn’t fight for them, because they have the hope that what they are doing will form a more perfect union that is inclusive of everybody. You’re not a patriot just because you hang your American Flag on your flagpole outside of your home. You are a patriot when you are fighting for the greater good within your country despite all the odds against you.
Interview by Brandon Bornes