The lake looked the way it always looked when James went swimming. He’d been there before, made the same dives, enjoyed the same weather. But on that day—although it was impossible to tell—about a third of the water had been drained for construction. When James dove in, the water level only reached two feet.
When he came to, he knew immediately he was paralyzed. A Special Forces trainee at Fort Bragg, James says that “after all the bullets I’ve dodged, I never thought a lake was gonna get me.”
“I was fortunate enough to go straight to the Shepherd Center,” which specializes in treatment for people with spinal cord injuries. “It’s got a great atmosphere, a great program.” It was there that the newly paralyzed young soldier was first introduced to the FES cycle.
James now has a cycle at home—a good thing considering his single-minded focus on rehabilitation. Not only does he swim three days a week, he also works out on the bike at least that often and loves the benefits of its total body workout. “I feel great afterwards. When I get massages, I can feel the deep pressure in the majority of the muscles in my legs. I can tell where they’re massaging!”
His legs have kept their muscle tone, he can feel how stretched out he is, and he’s been weaning himself off the medication he takes for muscle spasms. “My range of motion is the same as before I was injured. And my upper body has come a long way—I couldn’t move my arms off the bed when I was in the ICU. Now I can.”
Although his rehabilitation is taking center stage in his life, James faces quite a few changes on the horizon. He’s debating where to take his career, a decision that’s hard to make with so many choices available to him. He’s open to staying in the army, perhaps as an Intel analyst for Special Operations, perhaps doing research, perhaps working with wounded soldiers. He’s looking into construction management, teaching high school, coaching football. He’s also planning to get his Master’s degree online in civil engineering. And he’s getting married.
But the excitement in his voice really intensifies when he mentions his work with spinal cord injury research. James has been invited to sit on a panel in Washington, DC, that decides where to allocate government money. “I think everyone should have access to the RT300. It should be in all the VA hospitals. They need more of them out there, they need to get the funds together. Out of everything I do, that’s everything for me.”
And this is where James’s sense of good luck is most evident. “I’ve been put in the position to fight for all the spinal cord injury victims, including veterans. I’ve been put in the position to fight for a greater cause. It’s tough. But everything happens for a reason. I look at it as a blessing by misfortune.”
Speaking of blessings, James has received the love and support of family and friends above and beyond the call of duty. “I always knew they were incredible, but to see that support system kick in . . . At the hospital, they told me they’d never seen that many people in the lobby. Waiting, sleeping there. And now I get to spend time with my fiancée, Anne. She keeps me going. I still go to bars, movies and restaurants. I think of all my buddies in the military who never even made it to a chair—what do I have to worry about?”
James isn’t sure what path his life is going to take. But he knows he’ll lobby to get equipment, research and funding for other soldiers and civilians with spinal cord injuries. In the meantime, he’ll keep riding. After all, for the work ahead, he “needs to get his trigger finger back.”