By Master Sgt. Mark Olsen, New Jersey Army National GuardOctober 30, 2018
JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - On Oct. 18, all eyes were on New Jersey Army National Guard Capt. Domenico Lazzaro as he walked up to the podium using two canes.
Seventeen months had passed since Lazzaro's life had changed due to a training accident.
"I never thought I would be in this situation," he said.
For the next 45 minutes, he told the story of how he had come to be standing in front of the Soldiers, Airmen and civilians at Joint Force Headquarters located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He called it: "Don't dis my disability."
On June 11, 2017, Lazzaro fell while navigating an obstacle course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst during annual training and fractured his T8 vertebrae in the middle of the spine.
After seven hours of surgery, the doctors had fused all the vertebrae from T9 to the L1 -- five vertebrae from the thoracic to the lumbar regions.
In one day, Lazzaro went from racing motorcycles and being an avid weightlifter, to being paraplegic.
For most people, this would have been the start of coming to grips with their new life and all the accommodations that would have to be made. It also would mean realizing that certain parts of their life they would never be able to do again. Others would simply give up.
Three weeks later, something peculiar happened.
"After my injury, I had a buzzing sensation in both legs similar to the feeling you get when a leg falls asleep, but could not move them."
Lazzaro began to have some feeling in his foot, specifically his left toes.
"The first evening, I stayed up all night moving my left toes."
According to Lazzaro's doctors, this is unusual, because recovery occurs from the point of injury down, not the other way around.
"The doctors kept pushing me to move things, so I did," said Lazzaro.
This was not the first time that Lazzaro had faced adversity.
In 1991, while a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Hodgkin's is a cancer in the lymphatic system where cells grow abnormally and can spread to other parts of the body.
For the next two years, Lazzaro underwent radiation treatments. After 20 years, he is cancer-free.
In 2009, he reenlisted in the New Jersey National Guard. In August 2011, he received his commission. From 2015-2016, Lazzaro deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the 328th Military Police Company's executive officer. Upon his return, he accepted a full-time position as a specialty branch recruiter. Then last year's accident occurred.
Because of his injury, Lazzaro was given the option of medical retirement with disability.
"I want to continue to serve," he said.
In order to serve, he has to be able to pass the Army physical fitness test in two years.
From July to December 2017, Lazzaro was in a wheelchair. Then he used a walker until January 2018.
"I switched to forearm crutches from February -- June and started using canes from June until present," he said.
During this time Lazzaro was in intensive physical therapy.
"Once I started moving, I began using a glider -- a type of upright elliptical that uses your arms to move the legs," he said.
He also uses an electronic stimulation bike that uses electric pulses to move his legs to pedal a bicycle, an exoskeleton harness that mechanically moves the legs, and locomotor training, while physical therapists move each leg and hips to simulate walking on a treadmill. This is all combined with basic leg strengthening exercises.
All these devices serve one purpose: helping Lazzaro learn to walk again.
Today, he can move with the aid of one cane.
"The more I progressed, the more I could do on my own," said Lazzaro. "The physical therapists say my progress is staggering."
Lazzaro is back at work with specialty branch recruiting and serves as the 42nd Regional Support Group's anti-terrorism officer.
He also spends time working with other paraplegic patients.
"I try to help people get past the idea that they can't recover," he said.
Because of his experiences, he brings one thing that is sometimes missing from other people: hope.
"Hope is very important," said Lazzaro. "Believing things will get better with time can help you progress and adapt to your situation."
It is this hope is what drives him.
"I want to go back to my life the way I was," said Lazzaro. "I want to be the person I was."