Life is an adventure with unexpected obstacles. The twists and turns people experience can drastically change their lives forever.
From that day forth, their only option is to move forward and overcome the hands they were dealt. For one Seabee, that meant conquering a unique and devastating set of challenges.
In spring 2015, during a beautiful sunny afternoon in Rota, Spain, Construction Electrician 2nd Class Alan Thomas, a Copperas Cove, Texas, native, was heading back to work from lunch when the unthinkable happened. As Thomas was riding his street bike, a Honda CBR1000, he unexpectedly met a car driving on his side of the road. He was thrown from his bike and instantly knocked unconscious. When he came to, he was lying in the road with his lower right leg almost severed.
“I figured I just broke my leg and I would go in a cast for a couple months and go back to work,” said Thomas. “But I guess it wasn’t that easy; my leg was pretty much cut off and life was just changed drastically.”
After the accident, Thomas was medevaced from Spain to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland, to receive the medical care he needed in hopes of saving his leg. Upon his arrival, the doctors took drastic steps and removed 13 centimeters of bone and flesh below the knee, hoping the bone would regrow.
“When I got to Walter Reed, I had an infection so they had to cut out 13 centimeters of my leg and smash it together,” said Thomas. “My leg is looking like a ‘Z.’ I am walking on a leg that isn’t doing anything for me. My foot was just dead: It won’t move. I have no feeling. I couldn’t touch it, so the recovery was tough.”
In March 2016, after a year of trying to save his leg and numerous surgeries, including transferring arteries from his left leg to his right, doctors had exhausted all options. They would have to amputate.
“That night I cried and did everything a normal person would do,” said Thomas, adding that the decision was ten times easier to make when the time came because he had already accepted his fate.
During his recovery process, Thomas found himself slipping down a dark path toward depression. He would never go back the way he was before the accident. He thought his life was over.
“It was mentally weakening,” said Thomas. “I was in a really depressed state. I thought my life was over and I couldn’t do anything ever again. Then I realized there are other people who have it worse than me who have a smile on their face.”
Thomas’ main support during these dark days was his wife. She was there for him every step of the way, motivating and picking him up when he was feeling down in the dumps.
“My wife got me through most of everything I went through,” said Thomas. “If it wasn’t for her, I would probably still be in a hole somewhere and I wouldn’t be here today.”
Throughout the two years after the accident, Thomas learned a few things that he will carry with him forever. He came out of it with a new outlook on life, and decided to see the world before he dies. On top of that, he believes he is a stronger person because of what he experienced.
“It makes me a stronger person because it is pretty much adapt and overcome,” said Thomas. He added that while it may feel like your life is ending it’s about moving forward because life still continues around you.
Thomas will compete in three events in this year’s Warrior Games: wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and cycling. He’s most excited to play wheelchair basketball because, as a kid, basketball was his favorite sport.
“It feels awesome to be able to play basketball with a team again. The hardest part is learning to figure out all the new rules and how to work a wheelchair the way they want you to, but the feeling is unimaginable.”
For example, in wheelchair basketball, travelling is different. You have to bounce once and push the wheelchair twice.
Thomas’ dedication to learning the rules and techniques of each sport impresses his coaches, including his volleyball coach, Bailey Wagner.
“A.J. is a great guy, great attitude and what I love about him he is always asking questions. He is left handed so it is different from the majority of the team . . . but he is always asking, ‘Hey coach can you teach me this? How is this different from this scenario?'” said Wagner. “I just love people who want to be a sponge and learn as much as they can while they are here.”
Prior to Thomas’s accident, he was a dedicated Seabee who had plans to stay in the Navy. Stationed at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Heuneme, California, he did three deployments with a Seabee battalion, twice to Afghanistan and once to Africa. He still thinks the world of his job.
“My favorite part about being a Seabee is working with my hands and being outside,” said Thomas. “I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Thomas is still assigned to Walter Reed, still recovering and undergoing physical therapy. He plans to get out of the military, hoping to work on vehicles. He can paint, fix and repair the body of any cars. He added that he would like to build custom build cars.
This year’s Warrior Games will be held in Chicago from June 30 to July 8.