Adjusting to life after the armed forces can be a challenge for veterans.
I have witnessed this on my own time, watching my older brother return to life as a civilian after four years in the Army. He served a 12-month tour in Iraq where he was in a forward unit. Now he is having a hard time translating his military skills to the so-called "real world." It is painful to watch, knowing how knowledgeable and skilled he is.
So when I first talked to Anthony Gates, I felt his pain.
Gates is a 32-year-old native of Norfolk, VA who served in the US Air Force for 10 years as an aircraft hydraulic engineer. Due to his skill set, Gates was frequently attached to a special forces unit and often found himself in theaters of war, completing deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Tripoli and Djibouti.
These deployments to forward areas took a heavy toll. Gates was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and was forced to deal with the stigma associated with it. As he explained to me on the phone, "people think PTSD isn't real, but it's real." Gates eventually received a medical discharge from the Air Force.
Returning home to Norfolk, Gates struggled to adjust to life out of uniform. Thankfully, a childhood mentor of Gates' knew Anthony was struggling, and also knew how much he loved the sport of basketball. While in high school, Gates had used basketball as an escape from the harsh reality of life in the projects of his Norfolk neighborhood.
Gates' mentor proposed that he coach an AAU team of fourth-grade boys at the recreation center in his old neighborhood, since his mentor was already coaching a girls team. Most of these kids came from low-income, single-parent households. Gates knew they needed mentoring and guidance. He also knew that just as he had done as a youth, they could use basketball as salvation from their life circumstances.
The kids were able to do just that. Their grades improved in school along with their attitudes, and they were beginning to take pride in their team. That last one may have been the easiest of the three to accomplish, however, as the team turned out to be pretty good. The Wildcats quickly became one of the better AAU teams in the region, and have aspirations of making it to Nationals.
Gates was so inspired by these kids and the experience of coaching them that he is directing and producing a documentary film about the team's journey from the projects to the AAU national tournament, called WILDCAT: Hard Work, No Excuses. To help fund the filming of the movie, Gates has established a fundraising campaign that will supplement his own contributions.
At the movie's official website, Gates spoke about the team and what the kids were able to gain from the experience of playing on it:
Along this journey, it has been an honor to mentor these young men, watch them grow, and help them turn hard work into success--both in basketball and in life. Our motto is “Hard Work, No Excuses” and it’s a saying we take very seriously. The success of the team has been outstanding. Their story, both of struggle and triumph, is one of inspiration, and it’s a story that everyone needs to see.
Filming closes in July, and hopefully will record a trip to Nationals. But when the film is released in either Fall 2014 or Spring 2015, it promises to show something more important than mere wins and losses.
This documentary will show how a 32-year-old veteran and 10-year-old schoolkids were drawn together by the healing power of sports. Sports have the ability to help a discharged veteran maintain his own sanity while at the same time allowing innocent children to escape from the projects and that unique insanity.
This transcendent quality was described by the late, great Nelson Mandela in a speech in 2006, as tweeted by ESPN's SportsCenter on Dec. 5:
As Mandela predicted, I have been inspired by the Wildcats' story and the change the team was able to bring about in both Gates and his kids.
Now imagine the effect this story has had on the people who are living it.
Note: All quotes or paraphrases gained through firsthand access unless noted otherwise.