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Afghanistan war vet Chris Bustamante finds rehab in tennis and ballperson duties

U.S. Open ballperson Chris Bustamante holds up tennis

U.S. Open ballperson Chris Bustamante holds up tennis balls from his position behind the baseline at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Chris Bustamante didn't play tennis while growing up in Freeport. He never gave it much of a thought. He wasn't into sports, playing some roller hockey in the PAL. He had no interest in what was going on at the National Tennis Center every year.

Then in May of 2011, while serving a tour of duty with the Army in Afghanistan, he suffered fractures in his lower spine. He was in the back of a truck when it hit a rut or a rock, heaving him violently to the floor. That injury, and a diagnosis of diabetes, would improbably put him on a road to recovery that involved tennis.

Chris Bustamante, age 44, is a rookie ballperson at the U.S. Open this year. He's still coping with back pain and always will have to cope with diabetes, but he said tennis and his U.S. Open experience are very much part of his life's rehabilitation.

"I found a lot healing in it for me," Bustamante said Saturday. "It's almost like a meditation. I can focus on something and get my mind off other things. I think it's important to have something to focus on, that helps get through struggles in life. And get out there and exercise, which has been great for my diabetes."

The journey to tennis began in Germany where he was first diagnosed with diabetes, then an MRI revealed the back fractures. It had been more than a year since the truck accident.

He was sent back to New York for rehab, to Fort Drum near Watertown. While there he found a flier about a tennis camp in San Diego that was part of the USTA Foundation's Military Program.

It was a fully funded trip to learn about the game of tennis. He and a friend, Jesse Colby, decided to give it a try.

The experience was far more than he could have imagined.

"They give you a week-long program with professionals on the courts," Bustamante said. "What was really amazing to me was in that week we were all able to feel that camaraderie that we once knew when we were in the military. There is healing in that in itself.

"At first, I didn't think it was anything more than getting on the court and playing some tennis. What I've been able to take away from it is that it is a powerful game, that it's mentally challenging, not just physically challenging. The focus needed to play the game, there are some parallels with life. If you are doing poorly you can pick yourself up, and self-motivate and figure out what you need to do. For me, it was at a time of my life when I felt I needed to self-motivate, pick myself up. I knew I was in the process of leaving the Army."

When he and Colby returned to Fort Drum, they decided to set up a program for wounded warriors there, and were helped by the USTA's San Diego district.

Steve Kappes is the president of the district and involved in the military outreach program that began with working with patients at a local Navy hospital. Bustamante, like Colby and the other participants, were unknowns.

"What we discovered, he was really enjoying the physical activity of tennis, but we didn't know until much later how much of an impact it was making in terms of putting him into an environment where he was surrounded by others with similar experiences that he could relate to," said Kappes, who is attending the Open. "When [Bustamante and Colby went back to Fort Drum, they were getting so much out of their tennis at Fort Drum they took the initiative to set up a program for other wounded warriors there. We assisted them with equipment and advice and helped get the program off the ground. It was the perfect example of what we hoped would happen, that people would latch onto tennis and bring it back to their home communities."

Last August Bustamante and Colby were asked to address an audience at the USTA's annual meeting about the impact of the program, and subsequent to that he received an invitation to try out as a ballperson. Fighting through the pain he constantly lives with, he made it.

"I was a bit nervous coming into it. I felt a bit awkward, this old guy running around out there chasing balls," Bustamante said. "The kids have been really encouraging and very supportive. They are teaching me the game, teaching me the scoring. The hardest part about it is pronouncing the professionals' names and they've been really good about it."

Because of his medical condition, he had to leave the Army in April. He lives in Islip Terrace and works for Home Depot in Patchogue. Being part of the ballperson crew here gives him the sense of teamwork that he had to leave behind.

"I didn't realize there was that much involved in being a ballperson," Bustamante said. "That screams another parallel between doing this and the military because you work as a team. You are aware of the surroundings and you have each other's back. I can rely on them and they can rely on me."

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