I am a U.S. Army Veteran and served from 1988 to 1995, being enlisted, an ROTC cadet, and as an Officer. I was injured in a training accident and sustained a spinal cord injury.
Post injury, I have been a mortgage broker, general contractor, and now serve as the Executive Director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Northwest Chapter. I also enjoy taking Disabled Veterans hunting and fishing.
My mobility has been a manual wheelchair for the past 29 years. I utilize an iBot powerchair that the Soldier Strong Foundation acquired for me now. This amazing piece of equipment makes my life more fulfilling and gives me a higher level of independence!
I am a father to 22-year-old boy/girl twins and reside in Spokane, Washington.
Peter Townsend, Army Veteran Ambassador
I am a veteran of the U.S. Army, having served on active duty from 1982 to 1986. My last duty assignment was as an Infantry Squad Leader with Co. B, 1st Bn. 504th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC. I was also stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington and Camp Kittyhawk in the Republic of Korea.
Following my military service I used my educational benefits to go to college where I earned degrees in Nursing and as a Physician Assistant. I worked as a Physician Assistant, mostly in primary care, for over two decades before having to retire due to complications of Multiple Sclerosis.
I am an active member of Keystone Chapter, Paralyzed Veterans of America, where I was recently elected to the Board of Directors. I also serve as a volunteer at the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
I currently live in northeastern Pennsylvania with my wife, Lisa, who is also my caregiver.
Bryce Cherryholmes, Marine Veteran Ambassador
Staff Sergeant Bryce Cherryholmes was born in 1988 in Fort Worth, Texas. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 2007 and served faithfully for eight years. Throughout his years of service, he was recognized as a leader receiving continual promotions and awards throughout his tenure. His actions and excellent support earned him three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medals and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal. During his first deployment, SSgt Cherryholmes incurred an initial back injury that became much worse over time. Due to the back injury and subsequent surgery, he received a full medical retirement and was Retired from Active Duty in 2015. SSgt Cherrholmes lives in North Carolina with his wife of eleven years, Kalyn and their two children, Brylyn and Kace. He currently serves as an Ambassador for the national veteran-focused nonprofit SoldierStrong.
Christopher R. Merkle, Marine Veteran Ambassador
Christopher R. Merkle M.A. is an advocate for veterans, their loved ones, garnering community support for their transition and, reducing the stigma of mental health. A Marine combat veteran who openly challenges the stigma of mental health by sharing his own personal battle with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and the benefits gained through the use of technology like Strong Mind and virtual reality to treat PTS. He shares to raise awareness that mental health and the invisible wounds of war are just as deadly as the physical wounds veterans suffered and died from in combat. While he is proud of his service to the nation and community in the military, local law enforcement, and Departments of State and Defense he does not believe veterans or anyone should be defined by their past. “You fought for everyone’s Freedom to include our own, now fight to regain or maintain your own happiness and the American way of life”.
He recently co-founded the nonprofit Aging American Project to provide education, support, and eventually financial funding to assist our aging veteran population. As an employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Readjustment Counseling Services (RCS) commonly known as the Vet Centers he provides referrals, information and outreach to the community. In his spare time he volunteers as the lead for veteran surf camps with Team RWB throughout Southern California. Through the benefit of virtual reality and psychotherapy he has found a new sense of meaning / purpose and is earning his Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology (PsyD) to personally meet the mental health needs of his fellow veterans.
His future plans include continued support of veterans that have experienced the trauma of war though government and nonprofit support. The beyond the future plans after sailing the world are to open rural mental health clinics in underserved international communities managed and staffed by the local populace for the local populace to address, trauma, intrapersonal violence, depression and suicide. All clinics will be strategically located near natural healing centers (surf breaks and golf courses).
“You fought for everyone’s Freedom to include our own, now fight to regain or maintain your own happiness and the American way of life”.
Laura Cowen, Navy Veteran Ambassador
Born in Hackettstown, NJ and raised in Bangor PA, Laura joined the Navy as a signalman shortly after graduating high school. She completed her training at Naval Station Great Lakes prior to being assigned to the USS Moosbrugger (DD-980) stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. She spent 2 years onboard, received a promotion to petty officer 3rd class, and completed a deployment as part of the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic NATO operations. Laura ultimately was part of the decommissioning crew of DD-980 up to January of 2000, when she moved on to a new challenge.
Assigned to Pre-commissioning Unit for DDG-83 the USS Howard, she traveled to Bath, Maine to finish the acceptance process. She was a plank owner of the USS Howard as part of the commissioning crew in Galveston, TX. During that time, she was advanced to petty officer 2nd class. The Howard was assigned to be homeported out of San Diego, California. Laura looked forward to deploying in the Pacific, but tragedy took this opportunity away. As she was traveling onto Coronado Island, a man ran a stop sign struck her, and then fled the scene. She was paralyzed and spent the next several months rehabbing and learning how to function as a paraplegic. She remembers the hard words that were spoken at one point during her rehab “It is unlikely you will ever walk again.”
She used those words as motivation from that point in 2002 to stay positive, keep active, and to keep her body in as best shape as possible.
Today this motivation and hard work had led her to have great success using the Indego exoskeleton device, donated by SoldierStrong.
Johnnie Williams, Army Veteran And US Paralympian Ambassador
My name is Johnnie Williams and I joined the Army right out of high school and served for 2 years (2001-2003) as a 31sierra (satellite operator/maintainer), I did 1 tour in Iraq and I sustained my injury there in a humvee accident. My injuries included a compression fracture at my L2/L3 vertebrae, broken pelvis, severed artery in my leg, punctured both lungs, and sustained a slight brain injury.
The reason I joined the Army was because I didn’t have a lot of choices coming out of high school and I also wanted to have a chance to travel the world. Getting injured at 20-year-old was a hard adjustment and the next few years would prove to be trying. I spent a lot of time self-medicating, no drugs, just heavy drinking and partying to distract myself from reality.
With everything that was happening I did manage to get married, get some college credits in, also get involved in some adaptive sports, and some mental health counseling. With everything that was happening, my wife and I decided to leave Florida and start anew. Since getting to Oklahoma in 2012 I have been a discus thrower and became a Paralympian, I have a son who is now 5 years old, tried my hand at rowing, and brought a house.
I first heard about SoldierSuit from a therapist at the VA hospital, they thought I would be the perfect candidate for a suit. It was very hard at first, only making a few steps before I had to stop, but I would get better and better after each session. I feel amazing to be able to look someone in the eyes over the top of their head. It felt amazing to hear people say, “man, I didn’t know you was that tall.” I remember the first time I got my home unit and the first thing I did was look out of the peep hole; I could’ve cried I was so excited. Sometimes when I put the suit on, my son looks up at me and says, “dad I’m going beat you.” And that makes all the effort worthwhile.
It feels amazing to be able to look someone in the eyes and over the top of their head. I would hear people say, “Man, I didn’t know you were that tall.”
Dan Rose, Army Veteran Ambassador
Being born and raised in Wisconsin, I was instilled with all of the qualities that the Midwest is known for from a young age. I was taught to work hard, respect my elders, appreciate the outdoors, and above all that there is no team better than the Green Bay Packers. I am very lucky to have a supportive and loving family and friends that have and always be there for me. They are the foundation to all of the successes and achievements I have made in my life.
My childhood was fairly average for the most part. I have always been an adventurous risk taker so I have made quite a few emergency room visits for stitches, broken bones, and whatever battle wounds I brought home that mom and dad couldn’t patch up themselves. I am the middle child of five. I have two sisters and two brothers, one of each are older and younger. My two brothers have always been my go-to partners in crime, the three of us are most likely the reason for our parents’ gray hairs. My two sisters have always been my support group and sources of advice for as long as I can remember.
During my senior year of high school, I ended up taking the ASVAB (the entry test for the military) to get out of a day of school. This must have put me on the recruiter’s radar, because soon after completing it I started getting phone calls from them. After a home visit from one, I ended up taking the bait hook line and sinker once I was told about all the money for college I could get. On April 2, 2003 I was in Milwaukee at the Military Entrance Processing Station with my right hand in the air saying an oath that would change my life in many ways.
After High School I went to Basic Training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I know a lot of people think “basic” was one of the hardest times of their lives, but I remember it being a lot of fun. I missed my friends, family, and home of course, but I look back on it like most of the summers from my childhood spent running around the woods getting banged up and dirty. The only exception was the early morning wakeups. After all of my training was done, I was a lowly Private in a Reserve Railroad Detachment in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Being in the Reserves, I was able to go to college while fulfilling my military obligation. I ended up graduating with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in December of 2008. Things were looking great for me, I had a good degree from a respected college, I was ready to tackle the world. Unfortunately, the job market wasn’t as optimistic as my outlook, so I ended up taking a job as a hand cutter on a logging crew. Essentially, I ran around the woods with a chainsaw cutting down trees. This was the best job I have ever had, it was exciting, paid well, and I got to be outside every day.
In April of 2009 I had fulfilled my 6-year contract with the Army. I enjoyed my time so decided to reenlist for another 6, but I changed my job to become a Combat Engineer. I heard about a unit, the 428 Engineer Company, that was deploying stationed in Wausau, Wisconsin so I volunteered to go with them. In October of 2010 I was on a flight to southern Afghanistan. My company was tasked with conducting Route Clearance in the Zhari District and Horn of Panjiwae of Kandahar Province. The job involved driving the routes in our area of operation daily while searching for and destroying any Improvised Explosives Devices (IEDs) that the insurgents would emplace to attack US Military, NATO, and Afghan Army and Police, as well as some unfortunate civilians. Most missions were boring and uneventful, the hardest part of the job was staying focused and never letting your guard down. I was very fortunate to serve in a Platoon that contained some of the best Soldiers I have had the pleasure to serve with, especially SGT Elliot Baker and SGT Matthew Nogee, both of whom I consider brothers. The three of us were part of the primary crew of the point gun truck in our Platoon. As a platoon, we were among the best Route Clearance Packages in country. We had a 100% find rate for IEDs on our missions until day my truck was hit by the IED that injured me. I was the Truck Commander on April 27, 2011 with SPC Long driving and SGT Nogee gunning. The IED was buried in a culvert in the road that we had no way of spotting. The blast tore the vehicle into two pieces and sent both airborne. When the Explosive Ordinance Team conducted their Post Blast Analysis of the event they concluded the size of the explosive to be near 1,000 lbs. I am now a T4 ASIA A paraplegic, in lay man’s terms I am completely paralyzed from my chest down with no sensation or muscle function below my injury level. SPC Long suffered spinal fractures with no lasting nerve damage and SGT Nogee suffered a broken leg. Considering the size of the explosion and the damage inflicted on our vehicle the three of us are lucky to be alive. The only thing I can really say about that day was that as bad as it was, it couldn’t have gone any better.
The three of us were Medivaced to Khandahar Air Base by helicopter where we were stabilized and treated for our wounds. SPC Long and I were flown back to the states for treatment while SGT Nogee stayed in Afghanistan for the remainder of the Deployment. I was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. where they performed my spinal fusion surgeries. While in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, I ended up befriending one of the Registered Nurses, Chrissy, that took care of me. Chrissy was always there with a smile and never felt sorry for me. She told me about her friend who was a Paraplegic and showed me pictures of him racing hand cycles. When they moved me out of the ICU I would push my wheelchair down there every shift she was working to see her and show her how well I was doing, it was hard leaving Walter Reed and Chrissy, but fortunately we have remained in contact and I will regularly email her pictures of my adventures. Once my spinal fusions were stable enough, I was transported to the James A. Hailey VA in Tampa, Florida for rehabilitation. The staff at the VA was amazing from top to bottom. The Doctors, Nurses, PT’s, OT’s, and Rec Therapists all pushed me and motivated me to get back to a normal life and push the limits of what was possible. The most influential person in my rehabilitation was my Rec Therapist Tami. She pushed me further than I ever imagined possible. I remember distinctly before leaving rehab Tami came into my room with a packet of papers and told me that I was going skiing in Colorado in December; she wasn’t asking, and I wasn’t about to say no. She had filled out the paperwork and all I had to do was sign and date them. That week in Colorado skiing was the moment when I realized that I was not going to let my injuries define me as a person.
After completing my rehab in Tampa, I returned to Wisconsin in September of 2011. It wasn’t an easy transition by any means. I lost a lot of my motivation initially because I felt like I was limited by my wheelchair and my disability. I moved in with my parents and took a lot of my frustrations out on them, but their love for me never wavered and with their support, and a lot of help from them, my siblings, the rest of my family, and a lot of friends, I was able to regain my sense of purpose in life. The first few months home were definitely the hardest part of my life. From September to the beginning of December of 2011 I was in a dark place until my trip to Colorado. My little sister had moved out to Denver before I deployed to Afghanistan. I promised her I would visit when I got home to go skiing every time, I talked to her on Skype while I was deployed. I never thought I was going to be able to keep that promise until Tami told me I was going skiing. Luckily, my sister was able to get the week off of work and come up to Breckenridge with me, initially I was terrified to have her there because I was worried I was going fail miserably at skiing, but the first day on the mountain when we got off the lift together at the top of the run it hit me like ton of bricks. I realized that it didn’t matter how well I could ski, the only thing that mattered was I was there in that moment, with my little sister skiing with her like I had promised. I spent the majority of that day crashing every 20 feet coming down the hill, but it was by far one of the best days of my life.
The week I spent on the mountain saved my life. I was no longer merely existing; I was living my life once again. I was able to get over the feeling of self-pity and doubt and started taking chances again. I took advantage of every opportunity I had to get out and try any adaptive sport I could. My Rec Therapists Sara and Joyce at the Milwaukee VA would call me every week with different opportunities, and through them I was immersed in a world of sports and recreation. I have met many great people that work for amazing organizations that get people with disabilities involved in a plethora of sports and outdoor activities. My network of friends has grown exponentially with every event I have attended. I can honestly say that I have lived more in the two and a half years since my injury than I had in the 26 years prior. I have surfed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, skied the Rockies, mined gold in Alaska, been on hunting trips in Alaska and Wyoming, completed the Chicago Marathon, and the list goes on and on. I have not made this journey alone and I thank all of those who have helped me along the way.
I am currently living in Madison, Wisconsin. I am now retired from the Army and I spend the majority of my time either playing sports, enjoying the outdoors, and helping anyway I can at the Spinal Cord Injury/Disease Unit at the Milwaukee VA. This year I have also started tutoring elementary students at a local school here in Madison, I enjoy being able to give back to my community and help the next generation succeed. Just yesterday I got a FaceTime call from my friend who teaches on of the students I tutor, she had passed a math test and couldn’t wait to tell me, I was so proud and moved that spending a little bit of time with her has had such a positive impact on her life. My journey is nowhere near over and I am excited to see where I end up next!
“The feeling of standing and walking again is indescribable. The first time I stood up and looked across the room, it was like reaching the summit of a mountain and looking down on the world.”
Steve Holbert, Marine Veteran Ambassador
My name is Steve Holbert. I grew up on a small farm in north central Kansas and I always loved airplanes. I thought the only way to ever become a pilot was to join the Air Force and knew I had to have a college degree in order to become a commissioned officer and attend flight school. I had no idea how I’d ever pay for college and wasn’t too keen on more school anyway so I decided to join the Marines on the delayed entry program. Once I graduated high school, off to Marine Corps Boot Camp I went at 17 years old.
I got assigned to the air wing and I was hoping to be a door gunner or mechanic, anything to get to fly. Instead, I spent four years repairing the avionics out of aircraft and never got to touch an aircraft or fly in one as a crew member. After I got out of the Marines, I found a job as an avionics technician at Hobby Airport in Houston, TX. There, I not only repaired avionics but I also was able to work on the actual airplanes and ride along on test flights for corporate jets. That close connection to airplanes spurred me on to getting my private pilot’s license. I even continued on with adding ratings and building flight time and eventually got hired as a pilot. I worked my way up to the position of Captain flying Boeing 737’s.
Then, in 2009, I had a crash at the local motocross track and I fractured five vertebrae along with several other bones, rendering me a paraplegic. I stumbled across the Paralyzed Veterans of America by accident at the VA hospital one day. So, I joined up and learned about many possibilities through their sports and recreation activities. There were many things I never even dreamed I could be capable of doing until seeing others competing in wheelchair sports. I became quite involved with the PVA and served on the BOD of our local chapter for several terms trying to pay it forward to other paralyzed vets.
Since the accident in 2009, I have tried out three different brands of exoskeletons. I was issued my own device through the VA system. I was contacted by Soldier Strong to demonstrate my robot to the staff at the VA hospital in Boston. I didn’t hesitate to agree. I had that same strong desire to pay it forward to other paralyzed vets. I demonstrated the device to hospital staff and tried to explain how it feels, which is difficult to articulate in words. But seeing with their own eyes and even feeling the emotions given off by a paralyzed person when they stand up and walk, even with the help of a robot, is a very powerful message. I am very proud to represent Soldier Strong in their quest to help as many disabled Veterans with equipment or devices as those Veterans strive to reach their goals or aspirations.
Matt Ross, Army National Guard Veteran Ambassador
A person goes through life wondering if he ever made an impact on the people around him and if the life he lived was worth it. Seeing the outpouring of help and support we have received, I feel that I no longer have to ask myself that question. It is with that, and with gratitude to all who have helped us along the way, that I want to say how much my family and I love all of you.
As I was lying in bed on May 20th, 2014 at the Minneapolis VA Spinal Hospital with not much to do but a lot of time to think, I reflected on how the injury occurred and how I planned to move forward.
As most of you know by now, I was hurt pretty bad at my farm in Charles City the night of April 26th, 2014. I, with the help of another man, was fixing a broken water line in my front yard. We just dug the hole, and he was helping me to lower down into the hole with the backhoe. When I was in position, I was on the wrong side of the beam that the bucket attaches to. Once I moved into place, I told the operator of the backhoe to move the bucket out more because I couldn’t reach the waterline; I made the split decision to lean between the bucket and the beam. It was this split-second decision that has changed my life forever.
Just as I grabbed the waterline, I started to feel my chest being compressed. That sound and feeling I will never forget. The bucket had closed on my chest just below my collar bone to just above my belly button. People have asked me if it was painful. I tell them it was the most surreal feeling I have ever experienced in my life. I had no pain, but if I live to be 100 years old, I will never forget the sound of the bone crushing. I can remember hearing my wife and daughter yelling, “You are killing him! You are killing him,” to the operator. I remember their screams.
This first time it crushed me, it split my sternum in half and crushed all the ribs on the right side of my chest. After he released me, I looked up at my future son-in law-and calmly told him to call 911. The second crush shattered my T7 and T8. As I fell backwards into the mud, my legs, from the knees down, were still in the bucket. My soon to be son-in-law jumped down in the hole to be with me, as did my other son-in-law. I could feel my chest quickly filling up with blood, as he prompted the Emergency Crews to hurry up because I was dying-which I likely would have, if they had not been there to keep me awake. The last thing I remember is the rescue crew putting me in a neck collar and back board. Four days later, I woke from a medical induced coma in Iowa City after my first back surgery. Prior to this, the doctors at both Charles City Hospital and Mason City Hospital made many quick and life-saving decisions that allowed me to make it to surgery, including bringing me back three times. Staff prepared my family for the worst.
I finally became aware again April 29th in the ICU at Iowa City. When they brought me to, they told me they had completed the surgery and I had full mobility of my right leg, but my left leg was completely dead. Because I hoped to walk again, I gave them permission to go back in. After the second back surgery, I lost all the mobility in my right leg but gained some in my left leg. On May 9th, they fitted me with a chest protector. I can remember all the pain I had when they tried to set me up to get it put on. I remained in Iowa City until May 13th. When I left Iowa City on May 13th to fly to the Minneapolis VA Spinal Hospital, the doctors in Iowa City gave me less than 5% chance of ever walking again and communicated to the VA doctors that I would never walk again. My discharge date was set for July 15th.
My first goals were to be able to fully dress myself and use the bathroom on my own by the time my two months are up. After that, my next goal was to be able to walk again by the end of the year. When I arrived here in Minnesota, I had little strength in my legs and was told I’d likely never regain movement in my right leg. By June 10, I was able to raise my right leg four inches off of the bed and bend my toes. My therapists, Chris and Jim, were constantly monitoring my progress and adjusting my exercises. On July 2nd, with just two weeks of therapy left, we tried something “really stupid”: standing up. I went over to the parallel bars with the help of Chris and Jim. After they explained what they wanted me to do, I did it. With a big smile on his face, Chris asked if I wanted to do something “really stupid.” That day, I ended up walking 15 feet, and my therapy date was extended until August 28th.
This progress prompted more intense therapy. By July 27th, we were working toward removing the chest protector. The doctor couldn’t believe I was walking. He was very impressed, even though it’s only 50 feet. By August 28th, I increased to 161 feet-with the assistance of a walker. I was able to walk out the door of the hospital and dress myself. In time, I hoped to be able to go to the bathroom by myself. Chris told me he projected that I’d be using this walker until the first of the year, then transitioning to a four-wheeled walker for another 8-10 months before transitioning to a cane six to eight months later. In short, April 2016 was the soonest projected date to be walking with a cane. I told Chris this plan wasn’t acceptable because I would be walking my daughter down the aisle in October 2015-either with the help of a cane or, ideally, on my own. Chris and Jim, along with other staff at the VA, gave me the tools I needed to succeed and prepared me to start therapy back home in Charles City on August 29, 2014. My new therapists, Dennis and John, immediately seemed like nice people. They worked diligently, and, on September 19th, I walked 25 feet with crutches.
On October 8th, Chris contacted me about maybe coming back up to the Minneapolis VA Spinal Hospital to try a new piece of equipment, an Exso Skeleton. It is a metal framework that goes around your legs, from your feet to your hips, and then connects to a backpack. It is designed to help a person stand and then walk. When he later contacted me set up travel plans to try this device the first week of November, he asked about accommodations and special equipment I might need during my stay. I told him I’d need crutches. After a long pause, he asked why. I told him I’d been using them for about three weeks. I reminded him that his initial plan wasn’t good enough. He was shocked, but he said he should have known better than to doubt me.
On November 3rd, my wife and I were back in Minneapolis. We never thought we would make it this far. At this time, I could walk about 200 feet with a walker before switching to regular crutches for another 200 feet and then finishing 200 feet with forearm crutches. 600 feet. I was the first person there to get to try this machine and used it several times before returning home on November 7th. I was unable to walk with a cane on that day but later made it about 50 feet on November 14th and nearly 900 feet by December 5th. At this time, I could move from sitting to standing position about five times in a row. Still unable to walk unassisted, I could move my leg forward about three inches. On December 8th, I could do about 10 sit to stands and walk 20 feet. By December 12th, I was able to walk farther, get in and out of a car, walk 120 feet, unassisted, and go up and down stairs fairly well with the use of a cane.
“After my accident, the first time I stood up, the rush I got, the feeling I got, there’s just no explanation for it. If that Ekso Suit hadn’t pushed me forward, I probably wouldn’t be at the point I’m at now.”
Combined Federal Campaign #59778
SoldierStrong is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose mission is to provide revolutionary technology, innovative advancements and educational opportunities to veterans to better their lives and the lives of their families.