On July 22, 2006, I was in Asia, working as a military police officer in the Army as part of a peacekeeping mission. Normally I drove a Humvee, but that day I was on foot. I have no memory of how I got injured, but when I woke up in the hospital several days later, I had skull fractures and severe internal injuries. I sustained spinal cord damage that paralyzed my legs below the knees. I could have easily fallen into a coma and died.
In the military, “Alive Day” is the day you nearly lost your life while serving your country. It becomes kind of like a birthday. Vets mark the occasion in all sorts of ways—some host parties or go out to dinner, and others work out or try to sleep through it. You can just say the words “Alive Day” to vets and they get it. The first couple of times July 22 came, I didn’t celebrate my Alive Day.
I was still on active duty at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, having dozens of surgeries on my abdomen and legs. I was struggling so much to rehab my body and mind that the day was a painful reminder of what had happened.
I medically retired from the Army in 2007 and moved home to Maine so my mom and stepfather could help take care of me. Because of the damage to my brain, I began to have seizures, and I had to learn how to talk again. It’s so frustrating to forget simple words.
I would say to my mom, “Let’s take the thing in the driveway that rolls.” I couldn’t think of the word car. My mom still gets emotional about my injuries. She says, “Parents are supposed to protect their babies.”
The next year, I got a service dog, a golden retriever named Moxie who is trained to recognize the signs of seizures. If she senses one coming on, she’ll grab my wrist and pull me to the ground, then keep her paws on me until the seizure is over. With Moxie, there’s no time to wallow. She needs a walk. She needs her food. She needs to be cared for. She’s a friend, an assistant, and a motivator.
A Grim Prediction
My lowest point was about a year and a half after my injury. I was meeting with a group of doctors at the VA in Augusta, ME, to talk about my injuries and prognosis. One of them walked into the room with a three-page list of activities they believed I’d never do again. He said I would never walk, never ride a bike, never bathe alone, never swim, never cook. The paperwork said, at the top, Severely handicapped, 100% disabled.
I had been an athlete all my life. As a kid, I was always running around with my two brothers, and I played field hockey and lacrosse in college. I joined the Army in part because it offered me an opportunity to do something meaningful while being active. When the doctors told me I should basically sit on the couch and do nothing, I was devastated. I went into the hallway and cried.
A veteran in a wheelchair whom I knew from around the hospital noticed I was upset and came over to talk to me. He asked me if I wanted to join him and a group of other disabled veterans who tried various adaptive sports like surfing and biking. I hated the idea—I had just been told I would basically never move freely again, and he wanted me to come watch people being active? It felt like a slap in the face. But he wouldn’t leave me alone until I joined him, so one day I did.
The group met at a local beach. When I got there, the other vets were waterskiing, and they encouraged me to join them. Eventually they got me out on the water. I fell the first time I tried, and another vet came over. “Let me give you a hand,” he said, holding out his arm. I saw that he didn’t have any hands; he had lost them both in Vietnam. I have no right to complain, I thought.
The introduction to adaptive sports changed my life and gave me a way to mark my Alive Days. After waterskiing, I tried snow skiing, snowboarding, and surfing for the first time. Now every year on my Alive Day, I do something my doctors told me I’d never do again. About a year ago, I had both legs amputated below the knee.
The nerve pain was getting so bad that it was keeping me from doing everything I wanted to do. Now that I have prosthetics, I can do CrossFit and run. This year, I signed up for a 5K that’s a few days before my Alive Day. I lost both my legs, but damn it, I’m going to go for a run because the doctors said I couldn’t.
I’ve been a member of the United States Women’s Para Ice Hockey Team since 2011. In para ice hockey, people with physical disabilities compete using sleds and specially designed hockey sticks. I also teach adaptive hockey and senior sports at the local VA hospital. I love my hockey players—their faces light up when they score a goal or lay a good check on an opponent.
Alive Day is like a rebirth. Yes, my life has completely changed, and I’ve had to decide what to do with it. Now that I’m in a good place mentally and physically, July 22 is about celebrating what I still have—and dreaming about what I’ll do next.