I stumbled into my calling in 1996 when I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after failing my first year of college. After four years of active duty as an infantryman, I re-enlisted in the Marine Corps Ready Reserves while embarking on a new corporate career and returning to school. In 2004 my unit was called to serve in support of operations in Iraq. On Thanksgiving night of that same year, the vehicle I was driving while on patrol was struck by a roadside bomb killing Lcpl Ryan Cantafio and wounding three other Marines, including myself.
Fortunately for me, my unit acted quickly to defend against the ambush and stabilize me so I could be medically evacuated. My injuries resulted in the amputation of my left foot, which would be revised years later to a below-the-knee amputation. I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and discharged from Walter Reed in October of 2005. Unlike my first enlistment, my injury didn’t afford me the choice of whether or not to leave the military. That decision was made for me. One moment I was a Marine in combat, the next I was a statistic laying in a hospital bed. And I was forced to leave with physical wounds I didn’t want to acknowledge and invisible wounds that had yet to make themselves known.
And that's where the story really begins...
I buried myself in work and school to attempt to adapt and overcome, as I was trained to do. But the more I tried to compensate, the worse things got. By 2007 things were seemingly at their lowest as I was going through a divorce, filing for bankruptcy, and ultimately hitting rock bottom. And it was only then that I discovered the huge net that had been ready to catch me the entire time; I just needed to open my eyes and see it. Through a growing support network of family, friends, and veterans organizations, I started to slowly fight my way out of the darkness. It was also during this time that I discovered that my heart and true passion was still with my military family, only in a different format than I was accustomed to.
The past decade has led me through the transition from corporate America to veteran advocacy. Initially it was in the public sector as the Dane County Veteran’s Service Officer, where I received my Veteran Service Officer (VSO) accreditation, which sounds fancy but really just means that I know how to navigate the world of the Office of Veterans Affairs (yes, it can be done successfully). I also chose an emphasis on military transition while completing my Master’s in Social Work degree from USC. But ultimately I found my way to the nonprofit world with the Semper Fi Fund, where I help other veterans successfully find their own path to a successful transition.
Activity and movement have been key to my ongoing recovery. Dog sledding, ice climbing, white water rafting, snowboarding, running marathons - you name it, I'll try it (except bull riding, honestly, that one scares me). I'm honored to be the co-captain of the national Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team (WWAFT), playing against NFL alumni across the country and killing the notion that our carbon fiber attachments create limitations.
And from my perspective, movement has proven to be the common denominator that has created the bridge between military and civilian causes. When the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing occurred, it was apparent that this scene was something familiar to those of us who had served in war. I was fortunate to be able to go to the bedsides of those physically injured by the attacks and stand beside them over the next three years as they literally learned to walk again, reminding them that their "new normal" would get easier.
It was through this process that I realized, veteran or not, everyone has their own mountain to climb. When speaking to businesses and other groups, I try to inspire thought-provoking ideas and consideration of how individuals and communities can come together to create sustainable support networks. Just because you haven’t been to war doesn’t mean you don’t have important obstacles to face. And they’re no more or less important than anyone else’s. To each person, sitting at the base of your mountain is a scary place to be. But I'm here to tell you there's only one direction to go, so let's get started.
"This isn't a nicely packaged topic. It's messy and vulnerable.
And for the honest conversations to happen, you have to get a bit uncomfortable. And I'm OK with that."