One illegal turn from an oncoming car and Michael Johnston’s life was never the same.
In 2003 Johnston was leaving a naval station in Virginia after a long day of work. While this was supposed to be like any other ride home, it ended in tragedy when Johnston was hit on his motorcycle and woke up later in a hospital bed with one of his legs amputated.
“I was the only amputee in the hospital so I had to go through a lot of it on my own,” Johnston said. “I don’t think I had ever seen an amputee in real life.”
This situation is one that many veterans face when they survive a life and body-altering accident. The stigma of disability paired with an intense interpersonal transformation can lead to setbacks when it comes to re-entering society; however, there are various programs and foundations working in San Diego to ensure that people living with disabilities can live an active lifestyle and find community support.
Before relocating to San Diego in 2008, Johnston went through a year-long intensive physical therapy program where he had to navigate his new life as an amputee. Johnston said that in his Virginia hospital, every day held unknown trials and tribulations because there were no other amputees around him to give him guidance. The pain management, the new ways of walking, and the barriers new amputees must overcome were all things he went through on his own.
“Maybe it was just my location on the East Coast, but I didn’t have a support group or a community or someone mentoring me,” Johnston said.
Returning to duty
Despite the setbacks, Johnston says he remained motivated through his physical therapy with one goal at the forefront of his mind: he wanted to return to active duty.
After petitioning to get back into the Navy, Johnston was only the fifth amputee to return to active duty after losing a limb.
“I had to rethink my disability and decide to focus on my abilities and what I could do.”
Still, Johnston said that the stigma of disability influenced the way the other soldiers treated him. While he had grown used to his new abilities, it took his colleagues a bit longer to get comfortable with his new reality.
“While before my squadron would tell me what I needed to do, now it was more of a, ‘can you do this?’ with a question mark at the end of everything,” Johnston said. “People weren’t really certain what it meant to be an amputee.”
So while completing his other work-related duties, Johnston began participating in fitness classes on base and showing he could keep up with everyone else.
“I started with 5ks and 10ks on base and a physical exercise class they would hold,” Johnston said. “I feel like I wanted to be the guy overcompensating and being out on the flight deck the whole day on my feet and working hard to show them that with a little determination and will power I could still do everything.”
Finding a community with CAF
His athletic ability and desire to challenge the status quo served Johnston well when he moved to San Diego and was approached by members of The Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation’s (CAF) Operation Rebound program offers sports and fitness opportunities for American military personnel, veterans and first responders with physical challenges. Along with offering training classes, the program also provides grants to cover equipment, training and competition expenses.
For Johnston this meant receiving a bike and being able to travel to events around the world.
Sports clinics and events like the Challenged Athletes Foundation triathlon are held throughout the year. volunteer coaches provide instruction and mentorship to introduce beginner athletes to a range of sports including cycling, handcycling, running, swimming and basketball.
From accidents with IEDs to living with post traumatic stress disorder, the veterans participating in the Aspen CAF Triathlon alongside Johnston each had their own individual stories about becoming disabled and their journey of adapting afterward.
Melinda Mcclure teaches a disability and society class to hundreds of college students each year and focuses the class on helping her students see the disability experience as normal and valued. Every year she has veterans from CAF’s Operation Rebound visit her classroom and share their own personal experiences with disabilities and the foundation.
“Most individuals, especially if they have previously been able bodied athletes, fear the loss of their ability to be involved in activities,” Mcclure said. “CAF turns this around and says to people with disabilities, ‘we are able, we are whole, we do things differently, but we can heal with the support of a community that reaches out and acknowledges the need for an active lifestyle.’”
SLIDESHOW: The Challenged Athlete Foundation’s annual triathlon on Oct. 18 brought athletes with all different kinds of disabilities to La Jolla from around the country to swim, bike and run. Mike Johnston biked more than 40 miles when he participated in the relay with two other teammates.
Battle on the home-front
Veteran’s advocacy group, Veterans Inc., reports that:
- One in 10 veterans is disabled, oftentimes by injuries sustained in combat.
- The number of disabled veterans is increasing; more than 20,000 veterans were wounded during service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- 19 percent of Iraq veterans report a mental health problem, and more than 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans.
Many of these veterans are ending up in hospitals disabled, discouraged, and without any family to keep them company. The transition from being a soldier to being stuck in a hospital bed or heavily dependent upon others can lead those wounded veterans to depression and other emotional traumas.
In fact, one report states that veterans have a suicide rate 50% higher than those who did not serve in the military. The study included more than one million veterans who served in active-duty units between 2001 and 2007.
While the physical and mental challenges facing these veterans are difficult, programs in San Diego like CAF’s Operation Rebound work with the veterans and get them active like they used to be, just in a new, adapted way.
“CAF is an example of a community that is willing to use adaptive equipment so that the individuals can continue to participate in activities that they love,” Mcclure said.
Building a better future
For his sports legs, Johnston relies on a local company, Peter Harsch Prosthetics, which opened three years ago in San Diego.
From running to biking to swimming, Peter Harsch works to ensure Johnston’s legs are comfortable and ready for his races and has been doing so since Johnston met him in 2008.
“I started this company over three years ago because I felt like there was a need to take care of the higher activity cases of amputees coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afganistan that are pushing the benchmark in sports,” Harsch said. “Looking at the industry there were no places out west that catered to any amputee that wanted to live an active lifestyle.”
A former triathlete and IronMan competitor, Harsch understands the athlete’s competitive lifestyles.
“I feel like my background in triathlons and 20 years of IronMan experience allows me to understand where they are coming from and their drive to win,” Harsch said. “It’s a lifestyle for me. I would want somebody out there to give me, my children or my family the kind of attention needed to get active again.”
During his time working with veteran amputees, Harsch says that their ability to receive high-end prosthetics has been done well by the government and Veteran’s Administration.
VIDEO: Peter Harsch Prosthetics is a boutique prosthetics company where amputees get personal care and support from technicians and engineers who handcraft their legs and arms. The kinds of legs range from an ordinary walking legs with trendy shoe capabilities to legs used for surfing.
Finishing the race
In the coming year, Johnston begins the next chapter of his life with his wedding quickly approaching in March and international triathlons following shortly after.
Along with training for and participating in CAF triathlons, Johnston mentors other amputees at local Naval hospitals and is taking classes to one day become a teacher.
“Sometime I feel like it was such a blessing that I was injured,” Johnston says. “Otherwise, I mean, I’d be normal probably.”