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Face of Defense: Coast Guardsman Throws for Distance

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A retired Coast Guard marine safety officer who has had a long journey of recovery with many tests of willpower along the way said he couldn’t have made it through without the support of his wife, family and friends.

Lt. Sancho Johnson joined the Coast Guard in college, where he was studying biology. He was the first in his family to join the armed forces, he said. In February 2009, he was injured in a traffic accident while visiting the island of Dominica. The open-air bus he was riding in overturned as it was coming down a hill and he was thrown about 200 feet.

“I guess I passed out, because when I woke up, I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I looked down at my leg, and my femur bone was sticking out, and I couldn’t move.”

He was flown from a local hospital to Miami, where he learned all but one of his ribs were broken and blood had been filling his lungs, causing his breathing difficulties. He also had a broken right shoulder and nerve damage in his right hand.

Johnson’s L-2 lumbar disk had slipped behind the L-1 disk. Doctors had to fuse the L-1 to the L-3. “Once they began to piece me back together, it was about a month, the doctor came in and told me I probably would never walk again,” Sancho said. “I was in shock.”

Family On Hand

Johnson said his mother and sister were with him from his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, but he wanted his father there to help him process the news. His dad flew in the next day. Together, he said, the family met with his doctors, who tried to prepare him for what he would face as he recovered. The doctors offered him the choice to continue his rehabilitation in Veterans Affairs hospitals or in a hospital near his home.

“I felt like I needed my family and friends, so I went home,” he said.

Early Days of Recovery

The early days of recovery were difficult and embarrassing, Johnson said. “It was very emotional for me, but my family just showed me love, and that’s what got me through,” he said.

Learning to drive again marked a turning point, Johnson said.

“It was a sense of release and relief,” he said. “I could just go out, get in the van and go. It was my first surge of independence since the accident.”

A New Beginning

Shundra and Sancho Johnson met in a church ministry singles leadership group, the couple said. “She looked past the [wheelchair] and just saw me,” he said.

As they got to know each other, Shundra Johnson said, she felt in her heart that he was the one. She made a promise to God, she added: “If you would allow him to love me unconditionally and accept me and my children, I will meet his needs.”

Some service members lose their families after they are injured, Sancho Johnson said, but he is grateful to have gained one in his wife’s children, Quintin, 9, and daughter, Morgan, 8.

“They’re my world; they’re my future,” he said.

“The kids don’t like doing anything if he’s not a part of it,” his wife said.

Warrior Games

Johnson learned about the Warrior Games through Navy Safe Harbor in 2010, when he wasn’t yet strong enough to use a manual wheelchair. His throw in the shot put landed at his feet, he said.

“Everybody was cheering and clapping, and I was like, ‘That didn’t go anywhere,’” he said. “I realized it wasn’t about how far I threw. It was the fact I was throwing.”

He said he started doing more research on adaptive sports. He started pushing himself more around in his wheelchair and built up his strength. He was strong enough to get around on his own by the time the next Warrior Games came around, and his teammates noticed the changes in him.

“That was encouraging, being encouraged by people I can identify with as far as injuries,” he said. “It became more than just adaptive sports. It became like a family.”

In 2013, now married, he earned a bronze medal in the seated shot put.

A Proud Moment

“It was a proud moment to have [my wife] there by side, cheering and yelling and clapping,” Johnson said. “I was just proud, trying to hold it all in. I can’t believe I went from just throwing it by my feet to being able to throw it … for a medal.”

This year, he will compete with the Navy team in the seated shot put, discus and hand cycling in the 2015 DoD Warrior Games at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, June 19-28.

Throughout the games, wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard will compete in track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.

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