Kevin Hillery, of Medway, Mass., was just a couple of weeks away from his 21st birthday in April 2011. He was looking forward to graduating from the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy and beginning his five-year service obligation to the Navy when disaster struck.

Kevin was riding a spring mountain bike in a race “in the middle of nowhere in Virginia” when a tree toppled onto him as a storm approached, breaking his back. “Fortunately, the friends who were riding with me cared for me and saved my life,” said Kevin, who is now 22.


Shortly after the April accident, doctors told Kevin he was paralyzed. As he prepared for life as a paraplegic, he discovered that he might not graduate from Annapolis after all, since he was no longer able to serve in the military.

As he recovered, his family and friends started petitioning the academy to let him finish his final year and get his bachelor’s degree. Kevin’s situation was unique, and it took several months for the academy to agree to let him return for his final semester.

He returned to school in the spring of 2012, and in May—less than a year after his accident—he received a bachelor of science degree in economics, becoming the first person to graduate from the Naval Academy in a wheelchair.

Once I was back in school, I was glad to graduate and get a degree. I knew I couldn’t stay in the Navy, so I worked on alternate plans.

Kevin was accepted to law school at Georgetown University. “Once I found out I couldn’t be a naval officer, I looked at what else I could do. Lawyers helped me through that process at school, and I became interested in a legal career."

Paralyzed Veterans of America's Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment), its vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with disabilities, is helping Kevin pay for law school. Ken Lipton, a PAVE counselor in Boston, helped connect him with the resources he needed.

“(Paralyzed Veterans) help is huge. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” Kevin said. “Sticking with me, tracking me through school and employment, and networking is always going to be a great help.”

“Kevin is very keen. He’s got good skill set,” Lipton said, adding that Kevin might apply for a Paralyzed Veterans of America legal internship next summer. “He’s competitive. If I had 20 guys like that it would make my job easier. Here’s somebody who would be a good role model; here’s a guy who is having success, a career. Injured veterans will see him as someone to emulate. That’s where he’s going to be good.”