The Valiant Veteran

My journey started while I was still in high school. I wasn't a model student. To be honest I didn't even like school, and I didn't even have a plan for life after graduation. One day during my junior year the school was doing testing for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). I had no interest in going into the military, but it got me out of class for a few hours so I took it.

Plotting the Course

Later that year I was in the lunchroom and the Army had a recruiting booth set up. I decided to check and see how I did on the ASVAB. The recruiter looked up my name and told me I did really well on the test, something like the top 10 percentile, and could have pretty much any job I wanted. Looking at the pamphlets and listening to his spiel I was intrigued but still not interested. After I talked to my mom about it and after all of the recruiter's persistence I finally decided to give it a try. But the deciding factor was that I still had a year to make my final decision because I was still only 17 years old and would spend that year in the Army's Delayed Entry Program.

I decided that I would join the Army, and two weeks after graduating high school I was shipped off to basic combat training (BCT). I was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia for BCT where I excelled. To me it was like an extreme P.E. class. After basic I was sent to Ft. Gordon, Georgia for Advanced Individual Training (AIT). I had decided to do satellite communications and the training lasted nine months. Before finishing AIT, 9/11 happened and I knew the country was going to war. So after graduation for AIT I was shipped to my permanent duty station at Cambrai Fritsch Kaserne in Darmstadt, Germany.

Going to War

After spending a few months in Germany, the unit was activated and began the process of heading to Iraq. It took the unit almost a whole month to get every team shipped to Kuwait and my team was one of the last in line. Once the whole unit was in Kuwait we became part of the "initial push" headed into Iraq, trailing only behind infantry units clearing the way. Once we arrived in Baghdad we spent most of our days convoying back and forth between units providing support and communications.

Johnnie blowing a bubble while deployed

The day of my accident was not unlike any other: more convoying. Only this time we went further and further out. We went from the airport, to a half-destroyed palace, across the Euphrates River, and into the desert to an outpost. At each location we would set up our equipment only to be told to break it down and head to the next location and repeat the process. After leaving the desert outpost and beginning our return to the airport, we approached a civilian vehicle. As I passed the vehicle, only looking down the road at the lead vehicle as it pulled away, I heard a loud BOOM and we were knocked off the road. As I struggled to keep our Humvee under control while partially hanging out of the door, we hit a dune and the Humvee flipped over. The vehicle crushed me as it flipped and I fell out of the open door. At the time I couldn't tell I was hurt and everyone kept telling me to stay still, but I was more concerned about others' well-being than my own.

After lying on the ground for what felt like an eternity, the medevac finally landed. I was loaded up and flown to the hospital. The last thing I remember was squeezing the medic's hand and him telling me not to worry; they would take care of me. I passed out. It wasn't until a few years ago that I actually found out I was flown to a field hospital in Iraq where I was kept in a medical coma for a week before I was flown to Landstuhl, Germany. The day I arrived at Landstuhl it was raining. It wasn't until I was taken out of the ambulance and raindrops hit my face that I opened my eyes for the first time since the accident. Upon arrival in my room I learned the extent of my injuries: broken pelvis, punctured lungs, fractured spine, severed artery, slight brain injury, my stomach had been ripped open from sternum to pubic area, and I was paralyzed from the waist down.

Recovery

I couldn't eat or drink for the first couple weeks because of all the trauma to my stomach. When I could finally drink something I was given some apple juice and everything was good for a few hours. Later that day I felt sick and started to get the feeling that I was going to throw up. I eventually did, only it came from my stomach wound which had reopened. I was rushed to surgery to have my second procedure to close it. There was one bright spot from my time at Landstuhl: there was a lieutenant that would come by almost every day to keep me company and we would just sit and talk for as long as he could. I later found out that the Army had only given me 72 hours to live after my arrival. The Army had me medically retired, and wouldn't let my mother come to visit me because of that retirement. Needless to say I felt some distance towards the Army for a long time after that.

After I spent a few stable months at Landstuhl, I was shipped back stateside to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. I felt good being back stateside because my mom and uncle would be coming to see me in the hospital. That feeling didn't last long. I had to keep switching rooms and there was this nurse who kept bumping into my bed every time she would enter the room. I asked her to stop but she never did. When my uncle arrived I told him about the nurse so he would say something. She stopped while he was there but resumed when he left. When my mom arrived I told her also. This time she went to the nurse's supervisor and got me switched to someone else's care and got her terminated. I was in the ICU for a week or so before I was finally moved to a normal room and I enjoyed every moment I could with my mom and my little brother while they were there. I spent most of my days talking with my mom, watching TV, and sleeping.

After a few months I was stable enough to be sent off to a VA Medical Center to begin my rehab. At first they wanted to send me to San Antonio until they realized I was from Tampa so they sent me there instead. I was ecstatic! I could finally see my friends and family. I loved being back in Tampa but I hated being at the hospital and the thought of doing physical therapy was unbearable. Friends and family made my time at the VA fly by and before I knew it, I was being released and going back home to my mother's house.

Johnnie with his family

Finding the Next Step

The next couple of years were spent trying to re-establish my identity. I divided my time between recovering and spending time with family and friends. My life was starting to normalize until I moved out of my mother's house and picked up where I left off when I left home as a teenager. I still had people trying to help me out and get me on a better path but I still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I was doing adaptive sports and was slated to go to a Paralympic Training Center in Alabama. I thought my future was set. Except they kept pushing my departure date further and further back until I finally said I would sign up for a few college courses until it opened.

It wasn't until one week into the semester that I finally got a call saying the training center had opened and was ready for residence. Unfortunately I declined their offer because I was more interested in remaining in college and possibly earning a degree. I did a few semesters before I got the bug and wanted to go back to sports and then back to school and so forth and so on. This went on for a few years all while I was still drinking, partying, and occasionally getting arrested.

The next years were spent dealing with coaches, professors, police, lawyers, judges, partying, and lots of alcohol. In 2010 I got married which only added another level of complexity to my already complex life. Things were going good for a while until I hit my breaking point. With everything that was going on in my life I found myself sitting at my kitchen table with a pen, a piece of paper, and a kitchen knife. As I started to write, thoughts began to stream through my head and when I looked down at the paper it was spotted with tears. I was ready to end it all until I thought about what I would be leaving behind.

The very next morning I went to the VA hospital to seek help because I knew I couldn't deal with things on my own anymore. I spent over a year in therapy dealing with situations stemming from my injury, alcoholism, childhood issues, and marital problems. In 2012 one of my best friends died unexpectedly. I was devastated, but my friend's death opened my eyes about my life. The next day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and felt disgusted. At that point I decided that I was going to get back in shape and make my way back to adaptive sports. After talking things over with my wife, we both decided to leave Florida in hope of a better quality of life.

Triumph

We moved to Oklahoma a few months later and I began trying to rebuild some of the bridges I had burned years earlier. I called and sent emails to every person I could think of trying to find a door to open. Eventually I got in contact with a coach and the long journey to redemption was underway. After competing for two years I was discouraged because I hadn't made the national team. I didn't know if I wanted to continue putting in so much effort and getting nothing in return. But the voice inside of me wouldn't let me quit and in 2014 I got a taste of international competition, going to the Czech Republic to compete with other athletes. In 2015 I finally got my chance to represent the United States at the Parapan American Games in Toronto and later that year at World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Jonnie Williams competing in the discus throw at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

The long season of 2016 was going well until National Championships in North Carolina where I got so sick I had to make an emergency visit to the VA hospital. I was given antibiotics for a really bad UTI and released. I was still recovering the day of competition but I had no choice but to press on. I ended up winning my event, but I couldn't relax yet because the next day was team selection for the 2016 Paralympics. I was sweating bullets the whole night, the next morning, and even in the conference room where the names would be read aloud. As they announced the names I was stressing out so badly. Name after name was called and finally as one of the last few names I hear "Johnnie Williams" and let out a sigh of relief and a huge smile. I left Florida and moved across the country with a goal to make the U.S. Paralympic team, and it had all been worthwhile because my dream had come true.

Johnnie Williams

About the Author

Johnnie Williams at the 2016 Rio Paralympics

Nearly dying in Iraq saved my life! My fight for life began as I was lying in the Iraqi desert after being knocked off the road in a Humvee accident shortly after my 20th birthday. "Don't worry brother, we are going to take care of you." These were the words from an unknown medic in the medevac chopper before everything went black. It would be almost a week before my eyes reopened and I regained consciousness. The raindrops hitting my face signaled the beginning of my journey in the fight for my life. The next 10 years would be a winding road clouded with delusions of grandeur, booze, depression, thoughts of suicide, redemption, excitement, purpose, and success.

Most of the stories here on RideQuickie were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.


Date: 7/11/2017 12:00:00 AM


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