Reaching for the Stars: Public Service
On February 27, 1976, I was born in a small-town hospital in Owatonna, Minnesota. The staff saw that my stomach was unusually enlarged and my feet were clubbed, and sent for the ambulance to rush me to the Mayo Clinic only 40 minutes away. Once there and stable, Drs. H.A. Peterson, Edmund Burke and Panayotis Kelalis diagnosed me with a rare birth defect known as Prune Belly syndrome or Eagle-Barrett syndrome. This defect afflicts the gastro-urological areas, and musculoskeletal defects in the more rare cases. In summary, I’m missing my abdominal muscles, and have an enlarged bladder and kidneys, and bilateral clubfeet, with the right foot missing much of the anatomy past the ankle bones. After numerous surgeries as an infant to repair my feet, the Mayo Clinic gave me a textbook left foot, and a right foot with a fused ankle in the clubbed position. More surgeries as a child ensued to repair my bladder and remove a necrotic left kidney. I went through childhood and adolescence with a very pronounced belly and two different shoes: a leg brace and later an ankle-foot orthosis to support an underdeveloped and clubbed right leg and foot. I had to have more surgeries to remove bone spurs along the leading edge of the clubbed foot, as it had trouble supporting a growing young man’s body during high school. A decision by my parents to delay elective amputation as a child was intended to prevent me from going through several prostheses and unnecessary pain. Finally, two months before my 19th birthday, January 4,1995, I walked on my own two feet for the last time. The orthopedic surgeon who electively amputated my right foot allowed me to walk the 150 feet from the pre-op room to the surgery table. Unfortunately, the wound of that procedure never healed. Following an 18-month long insurance battle, a revision of my initial amputation occurred August 12, 1996, with a new surgeon and advice from a leading prosthetic provider in Austin, Texas.
Austin was my home for most of my formative years. I can clearly remember in my fog of recovering from the anesthesia my dad crying uncontrollably at my bedside, asking why I had to suffer all of this. I put my hand on his long blond hair and told him it would be OK. After the surgery, I received the best in physical therapy and consultation. I healed from the revision six weeks after surgery, got into a functional prosthesis after three months, and then made a decision that would shape my life: I entered a regional law enforcement academy in March 1997. Seven months after they took the rest of my right leg seven inches below the kneecap, I was doing what I always wanted to do, something many of my acquaintances told me I had no shot at finishing. I became a deputy sheriff in Travis County, Texas, in October 1998. One terrible day, someone I considered a trustworthy colleague told me he didn’t believe in cripples being officers. I allowed that to get to me, and I left the Sheriff’s Department shortly thereafter. That was the second time I allowed someone to dictate my destiny based on my perceived disability. I vowed to never let that happen again.
After the tragic events of 9/11, I felt the pull of public service again. I joined the Westlake Fire Department as a volunteer, in a suburb of Austin, in 2002. I had hopes of completing the basic fire academy, but had serious trouble with a ladder evolution (training exercise) and severe sweating in the prosthesis. The department found a role for me: I went to school to become an emergency medical technician, and was put in charge of a group of volunteers who rehabbed firefighters during a structural fire. I served the fire department for seven years, where I earned Firefighter of the Quarter in 2005, and a Citation for Valor in 2006.
My extended family has a rich tradition in military service, with my paternal great uncle and maternal grandfather serving in the Army in Normandy during World War II. I always wanted to serve our country’s Armed Forces, but that was obviously not in the cards. Then, an opportunity came to serve in the Texas State Guard. I enlisted in February 2011. That was the greatest day of my life: a chance to serve in military uniform in spite of my disabilities! The State Guard was charged to be a force multiplier in cases of disaster, both natural and manmade, or what is called defense support to civilian authority. I served four years and made the rank of E-5 Sergeant. I’ve always wanted the chance to fly in service of my country, and found the Civil Air Patrol, the fourth arm of the United States Air Force Total Force. Fortunately, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) allows me to serve without a rejection due to missing limbs or stomach muscles. I serve in my squadron in San Antonio, Texas, as public affairs officer and training to become a mission observer in the skies! This is as close to military service as I will ever see, and I’m enjoying everything about CAP and all of its missions for the country.
Aside from my career service, I have been very fortunate to assistant coach a college lacrosse team to a championship, sing with a 150-member choir at Carnegie Hall, and sponsor church youth ministries. I’ve worked hard to confound expectations. Amputees can do anything they set their goals toward, and I’ve been very blessed to have people I’ve served with in all of these occupations see the value in me, my courage, and my passion to serve my community and country. It’s time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars!