“It wasn’t just me who joined the military when I signed up. It was my entire family.”
Retired Army Spc. Gerald Blakley with his wife Erin and son Milo at the 2023 Invictus Games in Düsseldorf, Germany. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Erin Blakley) VIEW ORIGINAL

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — November is the Month of the Military Family. It’s no secret military families are unique and sacrifice more than most families in general. This year, we focus on a younger military family that has lived a life of uncertainty and change.

“Being a military family means you live in the unknown. You are constantly waiting for what’s next and may not have time to prepare. It takes a certain amount of patience,” said retired Army Spc. Gerald Blakley.

When Gerald injured his back, the Blakley family learned the unknown like never before. In November 2021, he had a herniated disc right before deployment to the Middle East.

“I got pulled off deployment the day my plane was supposed to leave. It was frustrating, but good things came from going to the Soldier Recovery Unit.”

Blakley entered the Joint Base Lewis McChord SRU in January 2022, and one of those good things to come from his SRU stay included the expansion of his family.

“I got to see my son be born. That would not have happened if I were deployed.” He learned how to recover and overcome through adaptive sports.

“I went through physical therapy and was getting better. I tried out and made Team Army with adaptive sports, competed well, and seemed to do fine.” Blakely competed in the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Orlando, earning multiple medals. When he got home, he said something strange started happening about a month later.

“My legs started randomly giving out. I didn’t know what was happening. Then, on November 5th, I woke up one morning and couldn't walk.”

Blakley went to the ER and had every test possible, which he said came back with no issues. He then went to the Cleveland Clinic, and a specialist declared Blakley had functional movement disorder, a subcategory of functional neurologic disorder.

“There is a disconnect in how my brain sends signals to my legs. Sometimes, there's a gap in this process. Sometimes, I could be walking normally, and then I randomly fall because my legs give out. I’m still very much in the discovery phase regarding care. They don’t know very much about this condition yet. We are working through it as best we can.”

“It wasn’t just me who joined the military when I signed up. It was my entire family.”
“Look, Dad! You won gold!” Retired Army Spc. Gerald Blakley celebrates a gold medal win in wheelchair basketball at the 2023 Invictus Games in Dusseldorf, Germany, with his wife Erin and son Milo. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Erin Blakley) VIEW ORIGINAL

His wife, Erin, a physical therapist, said they are still maneuvering to find their new normal. “Our day-to-day has evolved. When he first came back, it was right before our son Milo was born, so it was mostly the back injury we were taking care of. Then, it evolved into FMD. Naturally, our life shifted, and with the addition of the baby, we’ve been adjusting where we can in order to make things work.”

“I'm using a wheelchair for safety, and on my bad days, it’s a no-brainer I use it,” said the retired Army medic.

The new normal for the Blakleys can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

“My husband went from being fully functioning to using a wheelchair, so what does that mean? We didn’t have a handicap-accessible house, and we still don’t. We are trying to figure this all out day by day.”

Gerald Blakley is thankful for his opportunity at JBLM’s SRU and knows the value of what he’s learned.

“Without the SRU, you wouldn’t have any resources. Soldiers who are wounded, injured, or ill need this. And it is a starting point,” said Blakley.

Learning to adapt is the daily routine. Even with his studies, Blakley refuses to accept defeat.

“I'm in nursing school right now and will graduate in May. My goal was to be commissioned as an Army nurse. Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I can’t become a nurse.” He says he doesn’t know that he can do floor nursing in an ICU or ER capacity, but there’s case management, for example, that he says also appeals.

“I'm very proud of him and how much he is continuing to push through,’ said Erin.

Her pride grew as Blakley was also selected for Team US and competed in the September 2023 Invictus Games in Duesseldorf, Germany.

“It was surreal. It was very wild walking in with 'Team US' on my clothes. It didn’t hit me until we landed in Duesseldorf. It was so rad. Hundreds of volunteers welcomed us, clapped, and cheered us on, with bands playing. It was so cool.” He medaled in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and track and field events.

“The resources and the camaraderie that come out of being involved in the SRU and participating in the games have tremendously helped his mental health,” said Erin.

Gerald Blakely was medically retired in June of this year. “I have a lot of moments that I wish I were still in. I didn't get to accomplish what I wanted, but now I have new things to accomplish.”

Together, the Blakleys face the future with a positive attitude and mounds of gratitude.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of my wife and family. I could’ve easily fallen into a dark place. Family is the most important thing.”