January 1st, 2011
It was a night to remember. I had spent New Years Even with my new wife and beautiful daughter. We drank champagne, sparkling cider for the little one, and ate junk food, while we watched the ball drop on TV to count down the new year.
3…2….1.. Happy New Year!
We cheered and raised our glasses, smiling, laughing, and sharing our resolutions. I had just been promoted recently to an E3 in the Navy, which I couldn’t believe seeing as though I had just been promoted to E2 two months prior, after graduating from boot camp. My Navy career was off to a great start, and I couldn’t have been happier.
Let me go back a little bit. I never planned on joining the military, in fact, I was dead set against it. I was going to be a big rap star. That was plan A. I always joked and said, “Joining the military would be my plan Z.”
After a failed attempt at a rap career. After the 3 years of being homeless. After the drug overdose, I decided that maybe plan Z was looking like a good idea. I was living in California, if you could call it living, and I called my dad up and told him that I wanted to join the Navy, and asked if I could stay with him until I left for boot camp. He agreed so long as I was serious.
It took a year to get in. The military was flooded with people, and were actually looking to downsize. During that year, I was spending all of my time working at Walgreens, and seeing my girlfriend and her daughter. The day finally came that I left for boot camp, in July of 2010. I came home in October and proposed to my lady.
We went out to a fancy engagement dinner
We got married in December. I was a whole new man. I gained some weight and muscle back. The Navy dentists fixed my teeth. I got a hair cut and clean shave. I got my confidence back, and I was dead set on being a squared away sailor, possibly for life.
My phone vibrated, I never had the sound on, and it was Mark. He called to say that he was outside. I checked the time. 3:00 AM. I had dozed off for a few hours while waiting to be picked up. I kissed my wife goodbye and left.
Mark and I were in the same duty section. Our base in Connecticut was on whats called “Christmas stand down,” and we were allowed to take 1 week of leave, either the week before Christmas, where we’d have to return to base on Christmas day, or the week after Christmas, having to return by New Years day. Mark and I both got the second week off, and he had a car on base, and happened to be from Massachusetts as well, so was kind enough to give me a ride to see my family and bring me back to base.
When I got in the car, he had the windows open, and was pounding back an energy drink. I told him that I was exhausted and going to sleep, but to wake me up if he needed me to take over. We pulled away from the house, and once we hit the main street, he turned the music back on and blared some high energy, rock n roll. I have no idea how I managed to fall asleep.
I woke when the windshield shattered, and the second I opened my eyes, I felt a quick sting in my right eye, and then blackness. A piece of the glass cut my cornea. I had no time to think about that. My immediate instincts said to get out of the car. I heard Mark grunting in agony, trying hard not to scream. I tried to open the door. It wouldn’t budge. The windows were still open, so I jumped out of my window and ran over to Mark’s side and helped him get out of his. We moved quickly through the snow towards the road. It was pitch black, not a street light in sight.
Once we were far enough away from the car, Mark collapsed. He had shattered both of his feet. I’m amazed that he was able to walk on them at all before that. Adrenaline is one helluva drug. He realized the pain suddenly and the screams began getting louder. I had my cellphone in the pocket of my pea coat, Navy issued, and called 911.
“911 what’s your emergency?”
“We need an ambulance, we were just in a car accident.”
“How many people are with you?”
“Just me and my friend. Just two.”
“Was there any other cars involved in the accident?”
“No, we hit a tree.”
“Where is your location?”
“I…I don’t know.” I began to look around for any indication of where we were. “I can’t see any signs. It’s pitch black. We were coming from Massachusetts towards Connecticut. I… Mark.. Do you know where we are?” He was screaming and couldn’t hear me. “Mark!”
“Sir… Sir” The woman on the phone tried to get my attention.
“I don’t know where we are.”
“Sir, we have you on GPS, an ambulance is on the way.”
After we hung up, I ran over to Mark, and I crouched near him. I didn’t know what his injuries were so I just kept telling him to stay awake and keep his eyes closed. He apologized over and over. I kept telling him it was okay, and I repeatedly said that I can’t see out of my right eye. We spoke in circles between repeating our injuries and apologizing until the ambulance arrived. The moment I saw the flashing lights, I collapsed in the snow and just laid there. They took us on two stretchers. I can’t remember if we were in the same ambulance or if there were two. I just remember flashes from that point. They spoke some medical jargon, while asking me questions. They took out scissors and began to cut my pea coat.
“No, I can take it off.”
“Sir, we need you to sit still.”
“No, this is part of my uniform, it’s expensive.”
“Sir, they’ll give you another one.”
“No they won’t. It’s expensive.”
They cut it off anyway. They also cut off my clothes.
I saw Mark only for a brief second when we arrived at the hospital in Rhode Island. They carted him off in one direction and me in another. I was in some sort of lobby area, when a nurse approached me and asked if there was anyone they should call. I, for the first time, got to say,
“Call my wife.”
I quickly realized how panicked she would be if the nurse called her and left a message saying that I was in an accident and in the hospital so I asked if I could be the one to speak with her. I left a message, saying I didn’t make it back to base, and that I’m in the hospital in Rhode Island but that I’m alright.
I remember waking up in the hospital bed, in a room, feeling exhausted but the drugs kept the pain at bay. My wife showed up, it was an hour drive, and she looked shocked to see me in such a vulnerable state. My dad showed up shortly after too.
The doctors said that I had a concussion, a fractured sternum, and a corneal abrasion. A few months of medicated drops in my eye and my vision returned. Mark wasn’t as lucky. He spent several days in the hospital getting his feet operated on. It took months to recover enough to return to duty. He eventually got back on track, and as far as I know he’d still in the Navy.
I appeared alright sooner, but as I went back to work, I had pains in my back. I couldn’t stand or sit for too long without being in unbearable back pain. I couldn’t pass my fitness tests. I looked fine on the surface, but my lower back was definitely not. It took many tests and attempts, but due to my injury and the fact that the Navy was looking to downsize, they decided that I was no longer worth the investment, and they let me go. I received an honorable discharge, and my GI bill. They thanked me for my service and that was it. Plan Z failed.
I didn’t know what to do. I decided to roll into college, not for the education, but because the GI bill would pay my rent so long as I was a full time student. So, two weeks a civilian, and I was taking a full course load while reexamining my life and direction. It took a long time to figure out what I would do next. Years of classes and degrees and I finally decided that I would take the firefighters exam.
I know what you’re thinking. “How could you be a firefighter but not a sailor? What about your back?”
You are correct for thinking that. My back is still in pain, though over the years I’ve managed to find ways to bring it down. So long as I stay light weight (I was power lifting in the military and got myself up to 205 lbs. I’m 160 now) and stay flexible. I stretch daily, and I keep my core strong. So long as I eat good and avoid foods that cause inflammation. My back pain is manageable. I’ve completely changed my life, mostly for the better, although when I slack and eat too much junk or miss too much exercise, my back reminds me that I’m not as healthy as I think sometimes. The doctors said that I will probably have worse pain in my 50’s and 60’s so I’m trying to get in the fire department. Kick ass for as long as I can, and get a decent pension.
I took the test this past March, the physical exam in the summer, and I am currently in the waiting part of the process for a job opening. Wish me luck!
You never know where life will take you and how your whole future can change in the matter of seconds. How one car ride can decide your fate.