Disabled Veteran != stop!
For years I have looked at Veteran’s Affairs’ (VA) evaluation of being disabled as something negative almost to the point that I was embarrassed for people to know that I was considered disabled. There is a list of ailments that the VA identified that makes me disabled. Things such as degenerative arthritis, breathing disorders, to the numerous list of damaged joints that resulted in my time in the Army as an Infantryman. That list is actually extremely MILD compared to many of my brothers and sisters but the purpose of this blog still remains the same. Being categorized as a disabled veteran does not mean that life has to stop; More importantly, it doesn’t mean that your physical activities have to stop. It is just an opportunity for you to overcome those challenges and learn how to move forward despite those injuries (both physical and mental).
Since retiring nearly 10 years ago, much of my “disabilities” were tucked into the back of my head as I looked for ways to continue moving forward despite doctors telling me that the days of running were over.
From my time in the Army I amassed several broken ankles, dislocated joints, torn tendons, muscles, and ligaments. Mostly this could be attributed to me being accident prone, but the fact still remains; the injuries still stacked up within this now older body. Now, 23 years after joining the Army, all of those small injuries have been compounded and I am finally willing to accept that I may not be in the same “physical” shape that I once was, but that still doesn’t mean I have to stop!
A few years after I retired I had reconstructive surgery on one of my ankles in an attempt to reverse all of the damage that had been caused from the fractures and repeated injuries. Agreeing to the surgery was actually a difficult decision for me. If you are not familiar with, many of you have heard the rumors of military doctors and surgery. You know, if you go in to have surgery on your left knee there is a slight possibility that you might have surgery on your right wrist instead. That or you will leave surgery with less mobility than you original had. This has always been the running joke (except for those that may have actually experienced the negative effects of the surgery).
Prior to my surgery I ran about 5-10miles per week (if that). It was mainly to attempt to do something physical. By no stretch of the imagination would I have considered myself a runner! I had never been in a race and the extent of my running was PT while I was in the Army. The day of my surgery, the doctor told me “after this, you will likely not run again”. While never considering myself a runner or even having the slightest idea of running, I was not happy with this statement at all! In fact, I was so unhappy with this prognosis from the surgeon that the day I came out of surgery I not only registered for my first race, but it was also a half-marathon. This was not only going to be my longest run ever, it was about 11 miles longer than anything I ever would have voluntarily run at a single time!!
While I don’t think I had something to prove, nor was I being ornery, I simply wanted to be the director of my own destiny. “Disabled” or not, it was absolutely not something I was going to let control my life. The 4-months following my physical therapy I began running. Following the physical therapy, it was like learning to run all over again. While the pain was actually gone, the joint just didn’t seem to move like it once had. Over time I learned how to run on my ankle and was slowly able to go further and further. Even the people I run with likely couldn’t tell which ankle I had surgery on.
February 12th was when the prognosis was officially changed. I toed the line of the Austin Half Marathon and thus begun a new part of my life. I finished my very first half marathon in 2:08. For me this wasn’t about how fast I could run or where I finished within the pack, this was more about taking control over my own destiny and overcoming that which I was told I could not do!
Since that day I have run countless half marathons, many marathons, and even went beyond that to run about a dozen ultra marathons, my latest of which was Bandera 100k. Me being stubborn back in 2012 actually set the stage for what would transition into a late life running adventure. For the last year I have averaged over 50 miles per week (mpw) running and have begun to put more emphasis on how to overcome those “disabilities”.
While I wake-up everyday in pain and even simple tasks like standing up can be painful, I have actually found a considerable amount of pain management through running. As odd as it sounds, the degenerative arthritis in my lower extremities actually feels better WHILE running!
Recently I have been introduced to a remarkable program called Vets 2 Victory (@vets2victory) that takes disabled vets and provides them with a structured coaching program. This program not only exposes those many disabled veterans to a coaching program, which they may never have pursued on their own, but it also builds confidence in themselves, increases their motivation, and serves as a daily reminder to them that being a disabled veteran is not something that has to be a “disability” on life.
For many years I was embarrassed to be considered a “disabled veteran”. It wasn’t something that I announced or talked about. I just went on my life as a Retired Infantryman and that was the end of it. Oddly enough I didn’t even talk of being retired very often for some reason. Much of that is purely mental. I refuse to consider myself old and when you hear “retired” it just carries (in my head) a negative connotation that someone is old. Everyone knows I am still 22 years old anyway 😉 Clearly I can’t be considered old and retired!
Each and every disabled veteran holds something inside of them and carries something with them everyday. They carry with them experiences, memories, and in many cases pain. 20,000 men and women were wounded during service in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, which drove an increase in the numbers of disabled veterans. Many of those disabled veterans don’t wear their disabilities on their sleeves or even share with you their stores. That does not change who they are in the slightest. I have also heard people criticize those people with “DV Plates”, especially when they don’t “appear” to be disabled.
What you see on the outside very well may have nothing to do with how they feel on the inside nor the circumstances that surround what each of them went through.
I have had the honor of working with amazing men and women over the years that have been paralyzed, lost limbs as a result of a tragic incident, or even suffer from PTSD or other mental challenges. What sets many of them apart from others is resilience and their ability and desire to overcome their challenges.
While I do not represent each and every one of our men and women who are disabled veterans, I would like to exist as a reminder that being disabled does not have to be the end. While they very well may not perform things the same way they once could, this may just be an opportunity to experience something new that may end up changing your life!
Being a disabled veteran doesn’t mean you have to stop, it means that you are being given a second opportunity to go!