Paralyzed Navy veteran Robert Kitchen never saw his disability as an end but rather a beginning – to give back, be active and reach new employment goals. “I don’t see obstacles in my way but opportunities, and I’ll usually try to find a way to work through it,” Kitchen says. “There’s typically a solution for every obstacle out there. I don’t see myself with limitations.”
Kitchen enlisted in the Navy in 1977 after a rebellious childhood left him at the mercy of a judge. Coming from a military family – his dad served in the Air Force, his mom in the Army – Kitchen opted to take a different road and enlist in the Navy, graduating at the top of his class to become an aviation machinist.
I don’t see obstacles in my way but opportunities…
A single moment changed everything, but it couldn’t change him.
Kitchen served in the Navy until 1982, after which he worked for several years in project management, engineering and information technology. But in 2010, while house-hunting in Colorado, Kitchen’s life was completely turned upside down. A car crossed the road and hit the car he and his wife were in head-on, leaving him with four crushed vertebrae, six broken ribs and other internal injuries.
In addition to being paralyzed from the waist down, Kitchen suffered damage to his optical nerves. His wife, Yvonne, walked away with just a scratch, he says. “I’m so lucky because the best part of my life is my wife, and if anything happened to her, I would have been crushed,” Kitchen says. “She walked away with a scratch, and I’m the happiest man alive.”
One blow follows another. Fighting back. A new way to live.
After completing his rehabilitation, Kitchen immediately went back to work, committed to completing a project he’d left unfinished before the car accident. But nearly two years after getting back to work, Kitchen suffered another life-changing disability that resulted from the optical nerve damage. “I stayed so busy at work that I didn’t even know I was going blind,” he says. “It was then that I realized that not only was I blind, but I needed to be trained to be blind.”
In March 2015, Kitchen graduated from the Colorado Department of Vocational Rehabilitation Center for the Blind. It was through that program that he discovered his skills and abilities were just as strong as before; he just needed to learn do things a bit differently. Most important was learning to type again, he says.
Every day is a holiday; every day is a feast. It all goes back to what you put into your life.
Eager to get back to work, Kitchen began working with his national service officer in Colorado, Marco Rossi, who put him in touch with the San Antonio office of Operation PAVE (Paving Access to Veterans Employment), an award-winning program by Paralyzed Veterans of America that provides one-on-one career counseling and assistance to veterans and their families.
Kitchen has since been working with PAVE counselor Susan Sprayberry in hopes of finding fulfilling work. While he and Sprayberry are still working to nail down the perfect job, Kitchen says he is perfectly content with devoting his time and future to volunteering.
An unfinished bucket list. And heartfelt thanks to Paralyzed Veterans.
Aside from seeking a job that will enable him to serve – whether in a paid or volunteer capacity – Kitchen has not given up on his bucket list. He regained his scuba certification and continues to do other things he enjoys, including kayaking, camping and skiing. He thanks Paralyzed Veterans of America for providing many opportunities to participate in adaptive sports and employment.
“The truth is, I don’t need to work, as my wife and I don’t owe any debt,” Kitchen says. “I owe the community – including Paralyzed Veterans of America and the VA – too much, and I’d love to work with people who don’t see life the same way I do and pull them into accepting the fact that life can still go on.”
“Every day is a holiday; every day is a feast,” Kitchen says. “It all goes back to what you put into your life. If you’re looking for excuses, a wheelchair will sure give you one. But life is too glorious to make excuses. Channel those worries and excuses into something good.”