By Gary SheftickOctober 18, 2018
WASHINGTON -- Spc. Stephanie Johnson has been working hard to prepare for the Invictus Games that will take place Oct. 20-27 in Sydney, Australia.
She was excited about marching into the Sydney Opera House Saturday with Team USA for the opening ceremony, then moving on to the Royal Botanic Garden to compete in cycling. She'll compete in athletics at the Sydney Olympic Park, where she'll also play sitting volleyball and defend Team USA's title in wheelchair basketball.
"Everyone wants to win, but it's about so much more than that," she said of the Invictus Games, in which more than 500 wounded, injured or sick service members from 18 nations will compete in 11 sports. She said the bonds formed between athletes will go far beyond the games.
Stephanie's workouts the last two months have been limited mostly to early mornings and late afternoons, as she began a new job in August. She's now working full-time on the staff of the Army Wounded Warrior Program, or AW2. A big part of her job is to advise other injured Soldiers who want to stay on Active Duty.
"It was a process for me" to stay on Active Duty, she said about transitioning out of the Warrior Transition Brigade, Aug. 3, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, after five years and more than 30 surgeries. She said some people didn't think she could do it.
"I'm all about proving people wrong," Stephanie said. "I don't like people to underestimate me."
If someone tells her she can't do it, she works all the harder.
Stephanie was injured June 18, 2013 at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. She was walking to the bus stop from the motor pool when two rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, came in back to back.
She and her roommate had just exchanged birthday presents because Stephanie's birthday was going to be June 20, and her roommate was scheduled to go out on a mission and wouldn't be there. Her roommate's birthday would have been the following week, but she never made it. Her roommate was killed during the RPG blast, along with three other Soldiers.
The explosion fractured Stephanie's left femur and her right foot. She remained conscious, however, until help arrived and transported her to the Bagram medical facility.
"When I was in the hospital, I didn't cry," Stephanie said. "I don't know why I didn't."
At the medical unit, Stephanie remembers nurses singing happy birthday to her before she was placed on a flight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
When she awakened in Germany, she was confused because she heard happy birthday being sung again. Because of the time difference, it was still her birthday and the medical staff there thought singing would cheer her up. After they left, she finally cried.
Doctors used a metal rod to repair her left femur and her right foot was put in a brace.
LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
Stephanie was eventually sent to Walter Reed for further operations. She expected to be there about six months, but after each operation, complications set in. The wounds didn't heal as fast as expected.
"I was in a dark place because I was in denial about a lot of stuff," Stephanie said.
After 18 months, she was still at Walter Reed, and said she felt more than a little depressed and angry.
"A lot of people like my mom and my brothers were telling me I was changing … I was really mean to some of the closest people to me," Stephanie said. "I would snap at them … I was so angry and I took it out on them."
The more she walked on her bad foot, the worse it became. Doctors put screws through her heel, but still problems persisted. She was in and out of a walking boot and the injury spread to her ankle.
One day she was talking with a friend about Afghanistan and she had a panic attack. She wound up in the emergency room, but refused therapy.
"I didn't want to talk with anyone," she said. "I didn't want behavioral therapy."
An amputee at Walter Reed told her the best way to avoid the psychological pain was to make humor out of the situation.
"Me being Stephanie, I snapped at him: 'What do you mean? This isn't funny.'"
It took her almost two more years to realize what he meant. "You've got to make light of it," Stephanie said of her injuries, adding that's the only way others will be able to see past the injuries.
SPORTS HELP HEAL
A physical therapist at Walter Reed suggested she try adaptive sports. The therapist knew that Stephanie had competed in track and field in high school, played basketball and was on the tennis team.
Stephanie resisted at first, but eventually was coaxed into trying wheelchair basketball. It wasn't love at first try, because the sport felt so different.
"The fundamentals are the same," Stephanie said, "... but it's still a lot different, because now you have to learn how to shoot sitting down, you have to learn all the rules for wheelchair basketball."
After the second and third try, the sport began to grow on her. When she found herself yelling at the referee for making bad calls, that's when she knew that she was developing a passion for the game.
"The attitude was there, just like regular basketball," Stephanie said. "Once I started playing and got better at it, I began to have the same love for it as regular basketball."
She tried out for the 2015 Warrior Games, but didn't make the Army team. She noticed that athletes who qualified for the games were versatile in both individual and team sports. So she took up shot put and discus along with wheelchair track events and sitting volleyball.
"Once I started playing adaptive sports, things got better," she said of her state of mind.
During the 2016 Warrior Games at West Point, New York, Stephanie competed from her wheelchair, but noticed the dexterity of athletes with prosthetics. "Before the Warrior Games, I didn't know the different possibilities that amputees could have," she said.
After about 30 operations on a foot that was progressively getting worse, Stephanie decided to amputate. Her stepfather agreed with the decision, but she was hesitant at first to tell her mother.
Stephanie -- whose maiden name was Morris -- was scheduled to be married to Staff Sgt. Lance Johnson of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Old Guard) in May 2017, and her one stipulation for the amputation was that she must be able to walk down the aisle on her own.
It took two operations, but less than a month before the wedding, she began walking on her prosthetic.
Adapting was not easy, but Stephanie said she wishes that she would have made the decision to amputate earlier.
This year at the Warrior Games in June, she took home silver in the 200-meter run and bronze in the 100-meter dash. She also helped the Army team take bronze in sitting volleyball and win the wheelchair basketball championship for the third straight year.
Her sports ability has been cheered on by a score of nephews and nieces back home in Toledo, Ohio.
Her mother, Relda Bates, has been one of her biggest fans. She has watched Stephanie compete at the Warrior Games, along with last year's Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada. At the Invictus Games, she watched Stephanie take gold in discus, silver in shot put and bronze in hand cycling, along with cheering her daughter and Team USA on to win gold in wheelchair basketball.
With a little help from the Fisher House Foundation, Bates will be in Australia next week along with Stephanie's husband.
At the last Invictus Games, Stephanie had the opportunity to talk with adaptive athletes from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and France. She said bonds were formed that went beyond the games and she's stayed in touch with several of the athletes via Facebook. She looks forward to seeing some of them again in Sydney, along with forging new relationships.
Stephanie's goal is to eventually compete in the Paralympics, hopefully in a sport such as wheelchair basketball, because she said she loves the camaraderie of team sports.
Her journey is all about resilience, Stephanie said. She advises anyone who is having a rough time to keep going.
"I can't quit," Stephanie said, "because I'm not just doing this for me."
She's doing it for her battle buddies who never made it home from Afghanistan, she said. That's her motivation.