It was the early 1980s when Lia Coryell joined the Army. After a trauma-filled childhood in foster homes around northern Wisconsin, she was looking to build a different kind of life from the one she had known. Two years later, things took a turn. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at 19 years old. For a long period, she was fine. She married, had kids and earned multiple degrees. As the first in her family to have ever graduated from high school, the last of these life goals is something Lia considers especially rebellious for someone for whom there were no expectations of success.
As part of her master’s in education, Lia worked with young combat veterans going back to college as first-generation students. She started a program called From Combat to the Classroom to help with the transition. It’s now been implemented at every state school across the country. With eight siblings, Lia’s life as a teacher started young, but when the disease progressed and left her in a wheelchair, she was forced into retirement. After her chair-bound students suggested she try adaptive sports, she discovered the healing power of archery and has never looked back.
Today, at 58, Lia has competed in two Paralympic Games as America’s very first W1 archery team member in her class. She was the first archer in a chair elected to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Board to represent able-bodied archers. The year 2022 also saw her top the podium in Dubai at the World Para Archery Championships. Back in the U.S., she has started multiple archery programs, including for The Pink Berets, female veterans with invisible wounds. Through her sport, she gets people out of their heads and rebuilds self-esteem.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I went to an adaptive sports camp, and the thing that changed my life was a word. They kept calling us athletes. I’ve never been an athlete, and I’m not built like one. But by the end of that week, I was an athlete. That shift in my mind was when I realized that I get to pick my identity, even if it’s just a word. When people used to ask me to tell them about myself, I would say, “I’m a divorced, single mother of two. I have M.S.” I don’t say that anymore. I say, “I’m an advocate. I’m an educator. I’m a leader. I’m funny. I’m artistic.” When you think of yourself that way, you’ll begin to believe it, and that can be a very powerful thing. So that’s how I got started in archery.
I have accolades on and off the field, and they’ve equally driven me to look deeper. I was invited to a Pink Berets retreat, because I’m an archer and a female veteran. Archery was the sport for me, because you can’t shoot a bow well and still think about other things. It’s a very mindful sport. It’s very meditative and healing.
The commonality with The Pink Berets is they all have invisible wounds—PTSD and MST (military sexual trauma). People think they know my pain because they see me in a chair. They have no idea of the pain that these ladies—and even my son who was a combat medic and has PTSD—feel. I realized I need to be the person they needed. If you have a means to fix something for somebody that’s struggling, and you don’t do anything about it, then you’re the problem.
Describe your volunteer role with The Pink Berets archery program.
I’m the coach. I did fundraising. I found benefactors to help us with equipment and worked with an archery shop in town. Then, I put the word out. Last September, we had our first practice, and we now have around 40 women that come and go through the program.
We’ve taken a hiatus for summer, because I’ve been critically ill. I spent weeks in the hospital, and about six weeks ago, I woke up and couldn’t feel the right side of my body. I just keep going forward. In the beginning, it was really scary, but these women who were afraid to leave their houses or to be in big crowds are doing that now. So how can I put any less effort into it? Somebody once told me that the best gift you can give another human being is validation that you see them. You don’t have to know them or even say anything. Just make eye contact. There are still people out there who need to know that I see them.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
In the military, when you get off the bus at basic training, everybody is a leader and nobody is an individual. All of these ladies were in a leadership position at one point or another. When life gets so shook, and you have internal pain, you forget that you have those skills. It’s about learning to be confident again, because confidence becomes leadership and leadership becomes involvement. It’s a wonderful cycle, but there has to be an igniter, and for this, it happens to be archery.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
With The Pink Berets, what people ask for help with is usually not what they really need from me. They might ask me to help them pick out the right arrows or to look at the way they shoot when really what they need is for me to encourage them. I’ve learned to read people. When they become more confident and more self-aware, they’ll start to ask for what they really need.
Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.
We shot at The Vegas Shoot this year, the world’s largest indoor archery tournament, and we’re hoping to make it back. I’m also trying to set up an online program for women who fit the criteria to be on the team but don’t live in Texas.
It isn’t necessarily life changing unless you have the support and the background to go with it, so before practice, we’ll talk and connect with each other. That’s the growth part I would like to see continue to expand. What can we do to help each other?
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
It makes the world a better place. The most powerful tool in the world is words—spoken, written or signed. And, like I said, eye contact and validation don’t cost a thing or take a lot of time. Being a part of the solution will bring you self-esteem and self-confidence. Everybody needs that. I never thought, as messed up as I was after coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, that I would ever have anything worth sharing with anyone else. And I realized that I do, because of that experience.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
We all have something to offer other people. You don’t have to have a million dollars to change or save someone’s life. It saddens me to think of this, but in the last year, I’ve had about six people—men and women—come up to me and say that I saved their lives. It’s not about the sticks. It’s about getting them involved in something that gets them out of their head and out of their misery. Helping out is in our nature, but when you’re afraid to leave your house or depressed, it’s very dark. You have something, even if it’s a smile.
If everybody did something every day, can you imagine what a better place this would be? Also, if I don’t use the blessings I got from my time competing and in the service to help other people, then they were for nothing. I was 50 years old at my first Olympics. I coach people with no legs or arms. Everybody has a challenge. Some are physical, and others are mental, emotional or cognitive. Archery evens the playing field.
In Dubai, the biggest trip was when they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” for me. I never thought that after I got sick and had to leave the military that I’d get to wear a uniform with my name and the U.S. on it again. And here I was at the world championships at full salute while they were raising the flag. It ain’t over.
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