We are Unconquered

There is one thing these Romanian men all have in common: They went through hell and came out stronger. They are Invictus.

Every week, Sergeant Major Dumitru Paraschiva packs up his workout gear and drives about 150 miles from his home in Fagaras, Romania, to the country's capital of Bucharest. The father of two makes the commute for the Invictus Games (Sept. 23-30), a global competition for wounded military personnel. But not everyone is happy about it.

"'Daddy, why do you have to go to Bucharest again? Please don't leave!' When those words come out of your 5-year-old's mouth, it breaks your heart," said Paraschiva, who was injured in Afghanistan in 2009.

Paraschiva is one of 15 wounded warriors who is representing Romania as the country makes its Invictus debut in Toronto. He'll be competing against 16 other nations alongside teammates such as team captain Major Laurentiu Serban and Corporal Eugen Patru, who have seen significant changes in their lives since discovering adaptive sports. "I gained self-confidence," Patru said. "That I can do something even with my legs' condition, that I can do sports. I lacked that. I felt useless."

Here are some of their stories and a look at the blood, sweat and tears -- and moments of victory -- that went into preparing for the weeklong competition.

"These guys are extraordinary," coach Petre Lupan (in foreground) said of competitors such as Staff Sergeant Bogdan Dragomir, who is shown getting his pulse taken. "Thanks to them, I am also running again. If they can, I can, I said to myself."

"After being injured, I had to do a desk job, in front of a computer," said Sergeant Major Costinel Slaniceanu, whose times are being logged ahead of the handcycle event. "With the Invictus project, I started doing sports again, and it brings me great joy."

Major Nicolae Grigore, 36, will compete in swimming and powerlifting. "I chose to be part of Invictus Team Romania because it is an honor to represent your country once again," he said. "We need to send a message: Even if we were wounded, we are still fighting, and we uphold army values. We will never give in. We are unconquered."

"I discovered that all the wounded soldiers in this team are true fighters," said Grigore, who's cleaning up after swim practice. "I respect that a lot. Relationships have grown stronger -- and they will last."

Sergeant Major Dumitru Paraschiva, 34, suffered a head injury after an explosion in Afghanistan on Jan. 3, 2009. He was in an induced coma until Feb. 23, 2009. He has no recollection of the accident, but his colleagues told him he was taking photos of rainbows just prior to the explosion. Even though doctors advised against his participation, Paraschiva wanted to be a part of the Invictus team and will compete in indoor rowing.

Sergeant First Class Ionut Butoi will be one of the three team members competing in compound bow. While on a mission in Afghanistan in 2008, Butoi's vehicle was hit by an IED. "After the accident, I was in hell," the 39-year-old Butoi said. "I did not know what I could do anymore, how my life will look like from that point on. But my family was by my side, and slowly I realized that life has to go on."

"The Invictus Games are not a sports competition, per se," Butoi said. "It is a way to test yourself, to see how far you can go, to show the world that even after injury, you can do something. You struggle, but you do something. We are Invictus in our everyday life. The fact that I moved on after the accident and moved forward defines me as Invictus. It defines us all."

"Invictus is a family, is about getting to know each other, about knowing each other's problems, helping and supporting one another," said Catalin Parvu (right), who is celebrating his son, Darius', birthday with good friend Patru.

On Heroes Day during a religious ceremony, Patru gives his support to his teammate Parvu. Parvu received the title of Citizen of Honor from his hometown, Domnesti.

After training, Doru Hamza (left) and Dragomir get a much-deserved massage. "Each day, you need to find your motivation: to go on, to keep training, to do what your coach tells you to do," Hamza said. "Mine is to prove to myself that I can and to see how far I can go."

Serban (left) was injured in Afghanistan in 2006, when, while running to rescue his colleagues hit by an IED, he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. He lost his right leg, but he was walking again after a month.

During his second mission in Afghanistan in 2014, Patru severely injured both of his legs when a suicide vehicle detonated next to his patrol. It took 26 surgeries for him to stand again. "I had to learn to walk for a second time," the 27-year-old Patru said.

Laura Serban, Laurentiu Serban's 7-year-old daughter, often joined her father as he trained for sitting volleyball. Sometimes she would even run laps with him.

Hamza (left) and Dragomir (right) do some cooldown exercises after running. "One of my greatest satisfactions during this project is that I met special people, and I have gained some good friends," Dragomir said.

Dragomir, 29, joined the army because his brother, himself a serviceman, enticed him to follow the same path. Here, Dragomir gets an ears and throat exam.

Dragomir gets a medical check-up before the Paralympic national athletics championship that took place in Cluj-Napoca in July. "What I want from Toronto? To be healthy in order to complete the races that I am in and, God willingly, to bring home a medal. Why not?" he said.

When he isn't training in Bucharest, about 100 miles away, Butoi spends as much time as possible with his 8-year-old son. "Every time I had a free weekend, I tried to compensate for my being away from home so much," he said. "I would take my family for a trip, somewhere they would love to go."

Patru (left) and Parvu, who have become very close friends, find time for some fun. "What I want from this project is to gain more friends like Eugen Patru," Parvu said.

Serban carries his daughter, Laura, on his shoulders at the Europa FM concert where members of Invictus Team Romania were invited on stage to talk about their first participation to the Games. Serban and his wife, Anca, met when she interviewed him two years after the incident in Afghanistan. They got to know each other better one year later, when she asked him to talk to a cameraman who had recently lost his leg.

"Two to three years ago, I was feeling depressed," Parvu said. "I experienced memory loss and wasn't paying attention to things around me. I would just block while speaking. Now, I am over it. I can have a conversation and give it my whole attention, from start to end."

"My childhood was filled with military stories," said Command Sergeant Major Eugen Manaila, 47, who's training for powerlifting. "My grandfather was a war veteran. He fought in both World Wars. My father was a military man with the firefighters division; my brother was a paratrooper. I guess that's part of why I joined the army."

After a tough workout, Hamza gets a massage with Lupan. Hamza believes he was given a second chance when he survived the IED in Afghanistan in 2008. "I told everyone: I knocked on heaven's door, and Saint Peter sent me back," he said.

"I like how running makes me feel, especially after I finish my training. It rids me of all my weaknesses, all my pains and old-age symptoms -- if you can say you are old at 38," Serban said.

Patru won the team's recurve bow bronze medal at the national archery championship in September. He shot his first arrow in October 2016, and in July 2017, he became the recurve bow champion at the Open World Military Archery Competition in France. "I want to continue being an archer," Patru said. "I love it. I have found myself again, thanks to this sport."

Dragomir takes a breather in his room in Poiana Brasov, a mountain resort where the team trained for a few weeks. Dragomir was wounded in May 2016 when an Afghan police officer opened fire inside the police base. He suffered two gunshot wounds and lost two of his fellow soldiers that day.

On Sept. 16, Dragomir married his fianceé Elena. His best man helps him prepare for his wedding as family and friends assist. Corporal Valentin Ciolan, his Invictus teammate and friend, was his godfather.

The team listens to the national anthem during their visit with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. "At Invictus Games Toronto 2017, Romania will be represented by true winners in life, who return to the fight, this time in the sports arena. These champions deserve our entire appreciation and gratitude," President Iohannis wrote on his Facebook page after the event. During the visit, President Iohannis handed the Romanian national flag to Serban. The team will carry the same flag during the opening ceremony in Toronto.

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