FORT DRUM, New York (Jan. 15, 2021) – Perseverance is defined as the ability to keep doing something despite obstacles or delay in achieving success. A real-world example is that of 1st Lt. Thomas Vincent, who spent nearly an entire year recovering after a severe car accident in November 2019 left him with multiple injuries.
Before discussing his accident and recovery, it’s important to understand where Vincent comes from and his motivations. Now an infantry officer, Vincent grew up in Marshfield, Massachusetts, where he decided he wanted to serve his country in the armed forces at a young age.
“I read the book as a kid ‘Lone Survivor,’ the Marcus Luttrell story,” he explained. “And that kind of put me on a path to want to become a Navy SEAL.”
But, he understood meeting his goal was going to take hard work and dedication.
“That changed me,” he added. At the time, “I wasn’t working out a lot, and I wasn’t super active. I was just playing video games all the time.”
Knowing he had to work hard and get into better shape, Vincent made a lifestyle change. In high school, he figured the best way to do that would be to join the hardest sport in his school at the time, wrestling.
“It was really tough,” Vincent said. “If I couldn’t survive wrestling, I couldn’t survive SEAL training (Basic Underwater Demolition School). It’s that simple.”
But he did survive. While he struggled with the sport at first, Vincent continued to work hard, improve his skills, and he never gave up. His time on the wrestling team would teach him the value of hard work and perseverance.
“Then, I started applying for military academies,” he said.
After spending some time in a preparatory program following high school, Vincent would follow his uncle’s footsteps when he was accepted into the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. Graduates of the USMMA are expected to either work for five years in the U.S. maritime industry with eight years as a reserve officer or serve five years on active duty in any of the nation’s armed forces.
“It was not a simple school,” Vincent said of the USMMA. “I learned a lot from the Merchant Marine Academy on how to be a good officer.”
Then, it came time to decide what he wanted to do after graduation. Following his goals to become a Navy SEAL, he went through SEAL Officer Assessment and Selection. Unfortunately, he wasn’t selected. After taking time to think about his options, he elected to serve in the Army as an officer.
“I honestly wanted to go Army because there were jobs I wanted to do in the Army,” Vincent explained. “I put in my application for the Army and started doing the Merchant Marine Academy’s Army training stuff. Upon graduation, I commissioned as an infantry officer.”
After graduating and commissioning, Vincent would go on to train as an infantry officer at the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course with follow-on training at the U.S. Army Ranger School before being assigned to Fort Drum in Upstate New York.
Upon arriving at Fort Drum, Vincent would become a platoon leader in 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry). Almost immediately, his unit began their train up for deployment. They conducted platoon, company and battalion live-fire exercises before attending the division’s Mountain Peak exercise. Then it was off to Fort Polk, Louisiana, to train at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). After completing his JRTC rotation, he returned home when, on Nov. 11, 2019, accident struck.
“Right when I finished JRTC, I went home and I got in my crash like the next day,” he said. “I guess the conditions were absolutely horrible. I took a right turn, slid out and hit the guard rail on the other side of the road.”
“I slid out in a way that my driver’s side door was facing oncoming traffic,” Vincent added. “Then, I got hit by a truck, and he hit me so hard I bounced off and hit the other guard rail. My car was completely destroyed after that.”
The condition of his vehicle was so severe, emergency responders needed to remove the car’s roof in order to get Vincent out of the vehicle. Once free, emergency responders transported him to the Samaritan Medical Center (SMC) in Watertown, New York. Once at SMC, medical staff determined the magnitude of Vincent’s injuries were too extensive for them to treat and decided to transport Vincent to Upstate Medical University Hospital in Syracuse, New York.
“They tried to med flight me, but I guess the conditions were so bad they couldn’t do a med flight; so, they just drove me (in an ambulance),” Vincent said. “My diaphragm tore and I was bleeding out internally. They kept pumping me with blood the entire ride.”
Vincent’s injuries from the accident were extensive. He suffered a compound fracture in his left leg, shattered right ankle, all ribs on his left side broken, a torn diaphragm, collapsed lung, broken pelvis, and a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
While still in the hospital, Vincent was re-assigned to the Fort Drum Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU), at the time called the Warrior Transition Unit, to manage his care while in recovery. The SRU is specifically designed to care for injured, ill and wounded Soldiers by providing case management to the establish conditions for healing while promoting the timely return to duty or the successful transition to becoming civilian veterans.
“We facilitate the healing and care of Soldiers during a very difficult time in their lives,” said Capt. Phil Axelrod, the SRU chief of operations. “The SRUs give wounded, ill and injured Soldiers the opportunity to convalesce while focusing on their recovery and family.”
Over the course of nearly a year, Vincent’s recovery would take him from New York to another rehabilitation facility in Massachusetts and back to Fort Drum. The entire time, he worked tirelessly to recover and was determined to get back to duty as soon as possible.
“I didn’t know the risk of how bad it was for me,” he said of his injuries. “To me, I was obviously going back. There’s no way around it. There was nothing in my mind that was like ‘this is it.’”
However, there were times when the continuation of his military career would come into question. Still, he never quit working on healing, both his body and mind, even when talk of preparing for the transition into civilian life was brought up by transition specialists.
“They had meetings with me about if I got out, here’s something you should know,” Vincent recalled. “I said I don’t know why you’re wasting your time. I’m going to go back.”
During his recovery period, Vincent would continue to push through obstacles and continually improve. Multiple times each week, he would communicate his progress with his squad leader and nurse case manager back at the SRU on Fort Drum, ensuring they knew exactly where he was in his recovery and that he was improving.
“The key to success is really the amount of time and attention we are able to give to the individual Soldiers,” Axelrod said. “We are fortunate to have a large cadre and staff to patient ratio, which means that whatever support the individual needs is available, and available quickly.”
That attention helped ensure Vincent would return to work at the end of his year-long journey to recovery instead of being transitioned out of the Army.
“It was all positive,” Vincent said of his interactions with his SRU squad leader and nurse case manager. “They want to make sure the Soldier gets where they want to and achieves his goals. So, I made my goal pretty clear. I want to stay in and I want to go back to my unit.”
Throughout his time in recovery, he refused to quit and continued to strive to get better, both physically and mentally. His hard work and perseverance would pay off. After nearly a year assigned to the SRU, Vincent was signed off as fit to return to duty.
Even before officially returning to duty, Vincent would spend time working in his unit's personnel office, or S1 as it’s referred to in the Army, to both get back into the swing of things and show his fellow Soldiers he’s ready to return.
When waiting for paperwork to clear and to receive the official notification to return to duty, “I knew I was going to be bored,” he said. He thought, “I should just go over to my unit and work in the S1 shop, just to let my unit know I’m getting better and I’m mentally here.”
Vincent has been back to work since late November, and now that he’s back, he’s excited to be a part of a company again and continue pursuing his goals.
“Being a part of a company is like being a part of a small family in a way,” he said. “And, I still have goals I want to achieve. The same goals I had before the accident are the same goals I have now. It hasn’t swayed me.”
Vincent wants other Soldiers who may be in a similar situation to know it’s not about getting back into the fight right away. It takes time to heal, and patience in recovery is key, something Vincent learned the hard way.
“Unfortunately, I over did it, and I developed a stress fracture in my leg,” he explained. “So, I needed to practice better patience and not go as hard as I can as fast as possible.”
Aside from his hard work during recovery, Vincent also attributes his recovery to the dedication shown by the staff of the SRU.
“We are available at all hours of the day or night,” said Axelrod. “We are always here to motivate and drive them to get back into the fight through rigorous adaptive reconditioning and physical training. We are always here to help them find their new normal as they come to terms with life-changing injuries.”
Furthermore, Vincent wants people to know it’s not only the visible injuries people need to worry about when in recovery. It’s also those invisible, hard to recognize injuries that often go unnoticed.
“The TBI was a big one,” Vincent said. “It was one I didn’t quite understand how bad it was. Because you don’t know. If you break your leg, you’ll see yourself getting better. But, if you stop remembering stuff, it’s going to be harder for you to understand.”
For other Soldiers who may be facing a similar situation as Vincent’s, Axelrod wants them to know it’s important never to give up, no matter how grim the situation may seem.
“However rocky the road, however difficult the journey, never give up,” Axelrod explained. “You are not alone.”