Photo credit: Robert Turtil, VA.

Federal Player of the Week

When Michael F. Welch meets some of the people who benefit from the sports programs he oversees at the Department of Veterans Affairs, he takes it in stride when they break down in teary thanks.

Welch, 57 and a retired Air Force colonel, is the Paralympic program specialist for the VA. That means he provides grants to adaptive sports programs that help disabled veterans, and gives stipends to top athletes who are good enough to compete internationally at events such as the Paralympics, held at each Olympics site following the traditional international games.

“They tell me, `You don’t know what you’ve done for my life,’” Welch said. He noted that some of the veterans had thought about suicide before sports filled in for something missing in their lives.

Welch, who served almost 30 years in the Air Force, including stints in 40 countries, said he could have found a higher-paying job elsewhere.

“There are other things to life than just a paycheck,” he said. “There are ways you can make programs better, create things and help people.”

Welch sounds a bit like a proud uncle when he talks about the Navy officer who lost his vision in Afghanistan but has won medals in swimming, the 70-something veteran with ambulatory issues who hopes to qualify for the Brazil games in sailing, and the four veterans with traumatic brain injury who will represent the U.S. in soccer at the Paralympics.

Through adaptive sports, veterans get physical activity, build muscles during rehabilitation, connect with others and find a new purpose. “It gets them out there and gets them active,” Welch said.

Welch’s office awards $8 million in grants each year to sports groups, cities, states, veteran’s service groups and others to support adaptive sports. His office also allots $2 million to Paralympics-level competitors, who are eligible for monthly stipends of between $600 and more than $1,100.

The Paralympics are run under international standards, but Welch’s office allows a broader range of veterans to participate, funding activities such as fly fishing for post-traumatic stress patients and bocce for older veterans. Cycling has always been popular among veterans, Welch said, but other sports such as taekwondo, badminton, bobsled and skeleton are gaining ground.

Welch, who is married and has three grown children, fell into the VA job serendipitously after retiring from the military four years ago. He applied for his current job online and didn’t initially know it was Paralympic-related.

Matt Bristol, operations officer for National Veterans’ Sports Programs at the VA, is glad Welch ended up there. Bristol said Welch has a keen eye for finding groups to collaborate with and has a passionate belief in the value of adaptive sports to disabled veterans.

Bristol also is impressed by his colleague’s intellectual curiosity. Welch reads every book written by Nobel Prize nominees, Bristol said. “Once he puts it in his brain, it’s like a super hard drive. He’s really quite brilliant.”

Welch has played some soccer and competed in judo, but finds other connections to the veterans as well. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where many younger veterans were injured, enabling him to make personal connections with the veterans, Bristol said.

Perhaps most importantly, Welch grew up with a severely disabled father. Ivan Welch developed multiple sclerosis and was disabled by the time his son was headed to elementary school. Young Mike Welch helped to feed and care for his father. As his dad’s condition deteriorated, the elder Welch moved to a VA nursing home where the other residents included both “those who had given up hope and those who had something to live for,” as Welch describes it.

“When you have people who have things like sports to identify with, and participate in, it’s not insignificant,” Welch said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.