By Lt. Mara Title, SMC Public Affairs
/ Published February 16, 2010
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The military takes pride in encouraging and including recognition of many religious faiths as part of the expression of the freedom of religion enjoyed by Americans. This was evident at the Los Angeles Air Force Base National Prayer Breakfast held Wednesday, Feb. 3, in the Gordon Conference Center. Col. Anita Latin, 61st Air Base Wing commander, hosted the event, which was sponsored by the Los Angeles Air Force Base Chapel. More than 280 people attended, including retired Lt. Gen. Brian Arnold, former Space and Missile Systems Center commander, Mrs. Donna Sheridan, Mrs. Pat Greaves, and Command Chief Master Sergeant Mark Repp.
The Prayer Breakfast continues an annual tradition dating back to 1972 when military members from every branch began holding their own prayer breakfasts.
"Our presence here today confirms that prayer adds quality to our lives and that it is still indeed important to our nation," said Chaplain Matthew Boarts, 61st Air Base Wing senior Protestant chaplain, in his opening remarks.
As part of this year's celebration, representatives from various faith groups recited several prayers delivered by former U.S. presidents.
"As we gather to celebrate the spiritual dimension of our nation's heritage, we thank you for the many freedoms we enjoy, especially the freedom to worship in an amazing fabric of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques," prayed Chaplain Calvin Dixon, 61st Air Base Wing chaplain.
Father Martin Benzoni, the base Catholic priest, recited a prayer from President John F. Kennedy: "Today we give our thanks most of all for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers; for the decency of purpose, the steadfastness of resolve and strength of will; for the courage and the humility which they possessed, and which we must seek everyday to emulate."
The event's main speaker, Angela Madsen, fully embodied the principles of "decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will."
"Our guest speaker this morning knows firsthand about adversity and also about overcoming. We're privileged to have a woman of this character and caliber with us today," said Chaplain Dixon during his introduction.
As she rolled her wheelchair onto the stage, many people probably felt sympathy for her. But this is the last thing that Angela Madsen wants, and judging by the life she's led, this is the last thing she needs.
"If you feel compelled or driven to do something, there's no reason why situation and circumstance should dictate who you are, what you will become, and what you will achieve in your life," said Madsen. And for her, that's an understatement.
Madsen had always dreamed of being an Olympic athlete as a young girl. Her daring nature led her to join the Marine Corps at age 19 with her brother. Unfortunately, a spinal injury led to her subsequent discharge from the military soon after. Her spinal condition deteriorated, and after surgery at the Veterans hospital in Long Beach, her condition grew even worse.
She was angry and volatile during the first couple of years after the surgery when it seemed as if her dreams had been shattered. She was living on $68 a month with a spinal disability. After three months in the hospital, she lost her job, her apartment, and began living out of a locker at Disneyland.
That's when the Disabled American Veterans stepped in to help her out. She was 357 pounds at that point and was sitting in a 22-inch wheelchair.
"A physician at the VA hospital told me that my physical condition was a waste of human life," said Madsen, "and that was a turning point for me."
Some of the veterans encouraged her to go to the Veterans Wheelchair Games and get back into sports. She started dropping weight and getting into better shape. She played wheelchair basketball and learned how to row on a day-long rowing expedition.
"I just got in the boat and took off," she said.
She began to row competitively and soon began to win medals. Although she wasn't an Olympic athlete, she was still able to participate in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. "My dream just took a little longer, and I had to do it differently," Madsen said.
She even surfs.
"I crashed the Women's Longboard Championship in Biarritz, France," Madsen said. "I entered and didn't tell them I had a disability so I got to surf with some of the best women surfers on the planet."
That was just a slight diversion. She had other goals to be met on the horizon.
She started her first rowing project in 2005, and met Frank--an amputee from France who didn't speak any English. Their goal was to row across the Atlantic Ocean together, but first they had to go through survival-at-sea drills. She was turned down at most of the schools because she was in a wheelchair.
"... but finally Seattle Maritime Academy actually let me try, and I passed the courses with no problem," said Madsen. She and Frank rowed from the Canary Islands to Antigua-- approximately 3,000 miles--and it took them two-and-a-half months.
"You eat dehydrated food, you desalinate your water, and you have a bucket for a toilet," she said.
Then she rowed across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Mauritius, an island just east of Madagascar.
"You row in shifts--two hours on, two hours off, 24 hours a day, seven days a week from one point of land to another point of land. So basically nonstop," she said. "There are storms, squalls, big waves, big sharks, amazing sunrises and sunsets and marine life all the way across."
But there's also arthritic pain and saltwater sores. Adding complications are the 20 to 30-foot waves that come crashing down, explained Madsen.
So what got her through all of this, and even led to her involvement with the California Adaptive Rowing Program in Long Beach, where she helps get people with disabilities or mobility impairments in the water? What led her to teach volunteers to row so they could empower others?
"Every day I prayed for strength to be able to do what I needed to do," Madsen said. "I prayed for strength to get to the gym and train and do what I needed to do to make it happen."
Madsen's life encompasses the prayer said so many years ago by President George Washington, read by Chaplain Dixon: "Grant that we may hear your word with reverence, receive it with meekness, mingle it with faith, so that it may accomplish in us the good work for which you have sent it."