Paralyzed Marine Provides Example for Newly Injured Vets
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 6, 2005 From the moment he became paralyzed while rescuing a fellow Marine four years ago, Joey Avellone refused to accept life on the sidelines.
Today, he's a volunteer peer counselor for other disabled veterans in St. Louis and a role model for newly injured veterans, including those of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom who are here at the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.
Avellone, 27, understands firsthand the frustration young disabled troops experience. He was at the top of his game -- a rescue swimmer in Hawaii -- when a fellow Marine fell into the surf.
Recognizing that the water was shallow, Avellone immediately conducted a shallow-water dive, arching his back and kicking his feet to stall his momentum. Despite his precautions, he hit a rock headfirst and his entire body went limp. Avellone was under water for about four and a half minutes before he was pulled out.
Today, Avellone is paralyzed from the waist down and has been medically retired from the Marine Corps. But as a former motorcycle racer, football player, wrestler and swimmer, he said he's unwilling to count his active days over.
"My friends told me I was lucky that I had done so many great things before I got hurt, because now I was stuck in a wheelchair," he said. "But just because I'm in a chair doesn't mean I can't do these things anymore. I just have to modify how I do them."
And do them he has. Avellone counts skiing, rock climbing, ski diving, handcycling, and snowmobiling among his endeavors.
"Since I was paralyzed, I've done more than most able-bodied people," he said.
Avellone has brought his can-do attitude here to the 19th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, where he said he tries to inspire newly disabled veterans.
"It's a chance to show people that just because you are 'disabled' doesn't mean you can't do everything you want to," he said.
Attending the clinic this year for the fourth time, Avellone called it an opportunity to share his zest for adventure with his fellow disabled veterans and to encourage them as they push themselves to try new experiences.
Avellone shared his philosophy with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz during the first day of the clinic, April 3, and the deputy secretary referred to Avellone's words in his address during the opening ceremonies.
"This is not just recreation; this is serious business," Wolfowitz said Avellone told him of the winter sports clinic. "It's a matter of conquering fears (and getting) back to the active life that all of you have had."
Avellone said the clinic offers disabled veterans a chance to do more adventurous things than most able-bodied people ever do.
"You might not think you can do some of these athletic challenges, but you can," he said. "It's not about competition. We are there to push ourselves to try new things and grow in confidence, cheering for each other."