Sam Bell, a 35-year old Marine Corps veteran, initially joined the military to do three things: “Find myself and find a career, and put drugs behind me for good.” He decided this along with his wife at the time, whom he had married nearly two weeks before he left for boot camp on January 15, 2001. Bell served as a corporal, working primarily with heavy armor and tanks. He completed his service four years later on January 15, 2005.
Bell then began teaching martial arts classes, as this was one of his most-loved hobbies. He would always tell the children in his classes that “in real life, chances are you’re going to get hit. What matters is not the fact that you got hit, what matters is what you do after you’re hit.” While Bell’s quote has relevance in martial arts training, its relevance in his own life is much stronger.
On March 3, 2012, Bell was forced off the road by an oncoming car. His custom cruiser slid through the grass into a six-foot chain-link fence and Bell was crushed between the support pole and his bike. The driver of the car never stopped.
When he was finally found and transported to a hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival, but was revived and put into a medically induced coma. “I died two more times after that, but ultimately I was brought back,” Bell says.
He spent 21 days on an oscillator as result of his extensive injuries: “I broke my neck and back each in two places, both my lungs collapsed, my jaw and tongue were crushed and I suffered a traumatic brain injury.”
When he gained consciousness, he was paralyzed and couldn’t yell for help, so his first reaction was to rip off the tubes and IVs from his body. “That’s your first reaction as a Marine; they teach you to escape by whatever means possible if you’re held captive. I thought I was being tortured, and I couldn’t fight back.”
Bell wondered for so long why no one could understand him; in his head, everything was clear, but when they put a machine over his trachea and he heard himself for the first time since the accident, he realized that he could no longer shape words and his lips and tongue were not syncing with his head. Bell had to teach himself how to speak again, as well as teach himself how to eat and drink.
Once he became conscious on a consistent basis, Bell realized that trying not to push too hard was his biggest challenge throughout the recovery process: “As a Marine, you are taught to always push your hardest all the time, and this idea from my training would come back and increase my pain because I put so much effort forth that I would feel soreness and burning from my nervous system.”
But Bell says the spiritual challenge cut deeper than any exterior pain. Going from a hand-to-hand combat Marine to not being able to hold his bladder or be able to get out of bed was a very daunting and harsh contrast. This was his inspiration in establishing his innovative new project.
“Getting my spirit back was finding out I was still a warrior,” Bell said. He spent 18 years practicing martial arts and even participated through the Marine Corps. This was another huge factor in what inspired Bell to create his most motivating hobby to date: wheelchair self defense. Bell says this art is “sorely needed and badly overlooked.” He teaches at the Tampa VA Medical Center and says the Department of Veterans Affairs, fellow veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America and its members have been instrumental in assisting him.
“As long as I can help, that’s my biggest motivation. It is my purpose and way to serve—as a warrior, we serve.” The other warriors in his class really enjoy it, and he wants Paralyzed Veterans to provide this class throughout the country. Bell says it’s moral payment more than anything else. It teaches the vets confidence and awareness, and “they raise their heads and laugh, which is what these men and women need,” according to Bell. “In fact, I need them, too. I was lost, too.”
Talking to his fellow warriors helped illustrate just how scared one can become through such a life-altering experience. “I am a warrior forever; we all are. There’s no taking it away. We were some of the first men to invade another country since WWII, and these men have to be reminded of this.” Bell teaches wheelchair self defense for “just a handshake.” He says that his efforts in creating the wheelchair self defense program are akin to one of this favorite quotes for warriors, from warriors: “Warriors do not fight because they hate what’s in front of them; they fight because they love what’s behind them.”
Bell has used a wheelchair for approximately 14 months. In addition to teaching his classes, he’s in the process of returning to college in order to become a coach or professor, buying a new, accessible home and scuba diving.
“I want everyone to have this,” he says of his martial arts program. “I want to see disabled martial arts in every VA, and self defense programs for disabled veterans across the country. There are tens of thousands just like me, and they need to know they’re still warriors.”
Read the inspirational stories of Paralyzed Veterans of America members
Maggie Johanesen is an International Affairs and Security Policy major at The George Washington University.