No one plans on becoming a paratriathlete, and for me it was a long, winding road with some mountain top highs and some deep valley lows. When I began racing in multisport in 2006, I also never imagined it would eventually become not only physical but mental therapy for me, but that’s exactly what it has become.
I was first injured in 1998 getting into a fight with a 30.30 deer rifle. FYI, I don’t recommend that. I reached into the case to pull it out for cleaning, not realizing the last time I put it in the case, the rifle was loaded and the safety was off. One big boom later and I was lying on the floor wondering what just hit me, and when I looked down all I could see was blood. I took the Army bandages from gear I brought back from training and went to work wrapping the wound to the point where there was nothing left for the paramedics to do except get me to the hospital.
I went through numerous surgeries over the next few years to repair the leg so that I could stay in the Army. The doctor noticed that my nerves in the injured limb were acting as if the injury had just happened. I was in much more pain than I was supposed to be, and he was concerned that I had developed a condition known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). Upon confirmation of the diagnosis from a pain specialist, I was informed that this rare nerve condition had no cure and the best we could hope for was to reduce to symptoms into a state of remission. Two years of treatment mostly with nerve blocks put the RSD into remission allowing me to stay in the Army. It also allowed me to accept a commission in 2002 to a medical unit in Mobile, Alabama, as their engineer.
My unit was one of the first to cross the border into Iraq in 2003, and for me the years of training had finally come to mean something besides boring repetition. Being an engineer for a medical unit and the preventive medicine officer is not necessarily a glamorous job, but I was glad to be able to do my part to help save lives. I dodged a lot of bad situations and close calls, making it to June before I got hurt. We were hauling it to get away from a group of men pulling my NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) out of the Humvee and boom, we hit a ditch. I was bounced around like a human pinball and in the following weeks, a pain developed radiating from my lower back to the groin area leading to the diagnosis for what doctors thought was epididymitis. It was not. My back was hurt.
The vertebrae in my back had been twisted and turned by the wreck and had to be pulled back into place. The doctors were able to reset the vertebrae and get the feeling to come back in my legs, but there was one huge drawback. The RSD that was dormant came back worse than ever, eventually leading to my left leg being amputated and the installation of a spinal column stimulator in my spine to control pain.
Going through all of this a rational person might have quit racing, but for me it was not a matter if I was going to race again, it was when. I got my first prosthetic to walk on post surgery, and I immediately asked Veterans Affairs for a biking and running leg. I wanted to complete all the disciplines of a triathlon or duathlon. The VA was not only supportive of my racing, but they also encouraged it as therapy for the pain management and therapy for the post-traumatic stress disorder that they diagnosed.
PTSD is hard to talk to others about because I never know how people will react. Most times though I don’t have to say anything because it’s very clear to those around me for a few minutes that things are not “normal.” I try hard to keep doing what I used to do but now as I compete in the Duathlon Nationals the one thing I cannot escape is that I may be running out of time where my body and mind allow me to race. I hope to continue racing with the encouragement of the VA, friends and family, but I can only do it with help because I am very uncomfortable before and after the race with the crowds and get confused easily. Once the race starts, all that goes away.
I am blessed I can compete, and I will make the most of what time I have left. I will never give up.
The 2014 USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championships take place on July 19 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Follow our live blog, read news updates from the event and look through photo galleries on the live coverage page.