Sam Bell joined the U.S. Marine Corps not because he had to but because he wanted to. He had a warrior’s spirit and he believed that being a Marine was a good fit for him.
Bell drove and serviced the Hercules tank in active military service from 2001 until January 2005. He remained on inactive reserve until 2009.
Then in 2012 while riding his motorcycle, Bell was struck by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. He was in a coma for three months and in a body brace, having suffered a C-7 spinal cord injury. His lungs had collapsed and he spent 21 days on an oscillator— the longest time anyone had been on an oscillator and survived, he was told.
Bell realized that he would need to use a wheelchair quite possibly for the rest of his life. Truly a wounded warrior, his body was broken and so was his spirit.
“Everything from my faith to whether I should’ve survived came into question,” Bell said. “I did hit the bottom, and I felt it.”
Activity helped turn things around for him. He searched deeply for his warrior spirit. He new it was still there, somewhere. He needed to find it again. “It was do or die,” he said, adding that he was fortunate that his injury was in Tampa and he had access to the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. “The SCI in Tampa is unlike anywhere else,” he said. “Without Paralyzed Veterans of America and Haley and the VA, I would not have made this recovery.”
As an example, Bell points out that he spent three months in therapy learning how to use his chair. “That would have been squeezed into four weeks in a regular hospital,” he said. “The extent of my therapy really helped me to be confident with my chair.” Bell added that he can’t thank his therapists enough. “Tammy Pasqual and Mike Firestone kept working with me and encouraging me and got me to be active again,” he said.
At the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Bell is still learning. “As a Marine, I used to go to extremes,” he said. “I’m still learning my limits.”
He said the Games have been a fantastic experience for him, and he believes all who are in similar situations should get involved.
“If you have doubt, if you don’t want to, if you’re hurt, then you should be doing this,” Bell said. “We chose to jump out of planes. We chose to shoot rifles. We chose to push ourselves. You did it once. Do it again!”
Bell’s can-do attitude has led him to develop an adaptive martial arts self-defense course for newly injured veterans. A third-degree black belt in karate, Bell said that his warrior brothers and sisters who have been injured suddenly feel vulnerable.
“We’re fighters and then all of a sudden you can’t stand up from a chair and you can’t fight back,” he said. “That’s a punch to the spirit.”
Bell hopes his training of vets can become a vocation. He sees it as a need. “They’re still warriors,” he said. “They don’t need to feel like victims on the street. We try to build confidence and awareness and then build from there.”
About his experience at the 33rd Games, Bell said he’s not there to compete against anyone but himself.
“Without the Games, I would have gone into stagnation,” he said. “Knowing that this opportunity was coming up, it forced me to get active and to train and to try take control of my life again. It’s been fun and it’s been a learning experience, and I know that next time I can do better.”
Read more about the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.