Chris graduated from high school at the age of 16, and his dad gave him three options: go to college, get a job, or join the military. Chris chose the military: “I was really kind of tired of school so military sounded like a great option to me.” It was right after the terror attacks on 9/11, which inspired Chris to join as well.
He was a cook during training, something he still enjoys today. He soon learned he would be deployed to Iraq, and he was ready. “I was prepared and felt like I was well-trained,” says Chris. “I was only 17 years old, but I was looking forward to serving my country.”
He took leave so he could say goodbye to his loved ones. While on the trip – on a Friday the 13th at Exit 13 – his life changed. His buddy fell asleep at the wheel, and Chris was paralyzed in the crash.
“I remember putting my hand up in front of my face. The last thing I remember is the truck coming towards us. Apparently we crossed over the highway, and hit cans blocking exit and the truck flipped 12-16 times, according to someone watching.”
Chris broke eleven bones in his body in the accident, in addition to suffering a traumatic brain injury. He underwent multiple surgeries to fix fractures in both his wrist and neck. As it often is, his road to recovery was complicated by illness and infections; rehab would take seven months of inpatient therapy.
Always a self-motivator, Chris treated his recovery as a job and says that made the long process easier. “It’s a long process, but it’s just like any other job if you think about it as going to work. It makes things much easier.”
It wasn’t until he got home, however, that he realized how different everything was.
“The biggest transition is when you get home,” says Chris. “Suddenly you don’t have nurses and doctors to help. It’s all different from what you’re used to. I couldn’t be too active for couple of years. It was definitely an adjustment phase.”
His introduction to PVA and adaptive sports provided a sense of purpose for Chris – a way to get out of his head. After spending some time feeling sorry for himself, a former roommate at the Tampa VA called him to tell him about an adaptive sports program that was starting in Jacksonville. That ended up being nudge Chris needed to get out of his funk, and his active athletic career was suddenly set in motion.
“I went up there one Saturday for practice and spent three hours with those guys and decided that I loved wheelchair rugby and that was going to be the thing I was going to do,” remembers Chris. “I fell in love with it instantly. I moved up to Jacksonville within four months of playing, and it’s been wheelchair rugby ever since.”
Once Chris got a taste of competition through adaptive sports and more specifically, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, his life changed for the better. Apart from the competitive aspect, Chris enjoys being part of a large, extended family of veteran athletes.
“The more you get around other people in similar situations, the better it gets. At NVWG and PVA, I met so many other people that have the same challenges. All the things that I’ve tried at the Games have made me a better person. They’ve given me a goal to work towards. I’m a better person because of adaptive sports and the Wheelchair Games than I would have been otherwise.”
Just before one of the NVWG trips, Chris met his wife Ash while he was doing interviews for a documentary. She sat in on an interview and heard his life story. They made a quick connection.
“I was blown away and impressed all at the same time,” says Ash. “I’m still speechless, I guess. I had never really been around someone who was in a wheelchair. I was so impressed how positive he was. I knew I had to get to know him more.”
Soon they were married, and knowing they wanted to start a family, they looked into IVF options even before the ceremony. “We knew IVF was probably the only option for us,” says Chris.
He talked to the VA and learned that an IVF benefit was available, and they were thrilled. But unfortunately, the benefit is only temporary. So while Chris and Ash were able to use it, other veterans might not be so lucky. PVA is fighting to make IVF a permanent benefit for injured veterans like Chris who want to start a family. Chris and Ash would love to see that happen so they can have another child one day.
“When you think about it, for a normal person who may have options, this [IVF benefit] could be a luxury. For a disabled vet who has no other option, this could really be a life changing thing. We feel like we have a lot to give as parents, so this is really important to us living full lives.”
Luckily, their IVF process was successful and they welcomed daughter Penelope Jane one day before Chris’s birthday. They plan to raise their family in the house Chris built right after his injury, with adaptations that PVA helped him secure grants for.
Chris continues to travel to competitions and mentors newly injured veterans to make sure they push outside of themselves and become active participants in their own lives. His standard advice:
Find a way to get involved in your community, whether it’s through sports, volunteering, or peer mentoring — just get out there and do something.
Find something to strengthen your body because it’s so important — for all of us — to have that recreation part of our lives fulfilled.
No matter what level you’re doing it, just come out and do it.
“I feel so very blessed,” says Chris. “I’ve always wanted to have a family – and with this beautiful baby and a beautiful wife, I feel like the luckiest man alive.”