Jillian Underriter Hero Story
Jillian Underriter is at a turning point in her life. The Army veteran, who served in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, was injured in a devastating motorcycle accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. While still adjusting to the challenges that she faces, Jillian is hopeful for what the future will bring.
Coming from a family tradition of service, Jillian knew that she wanted to enlist when she graduated from high school and chose the Army for its physical challenge. She was “always good at chemistry” and ascended through the ranks to become a non-commissioned officer specializing in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear operations. She served for 10 years with Fort Hood’s aviation unit in Texas and at Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Va. During this period, she was deployed to the Middle East four times. Always an active person, Jillian would run up to 18 miles a day and bike, and she learned how to ride a motorcycle in 2006.
Jillian was an experienced biker in the Virginia Beach area. She rode in many events, including Operation Rolling Thunder, which promotes motorcycle safety. On July 13, 2008, Jillian was supposed to go riding with a friend. When that friend canceled on her, she decided to go alone.
A “car ran me off of the road” at 70 to 80 miles per hour, she recounts, “crushing me between my bike and a barrier.”
She was rushed to the hospital and had to be resuscitated when she stopped breathing. The accident “shattered [her] spine completely in half” and left her in a coma for four weeks. When she awoke, she found out that she was a T-6 paraplegic and had two rods holding her spine in place. She had also suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Being released from a Norfolk hospital was the beginning of a grueling rehabilitation process. Jillian moved into her parents’ home in Virginia where she received private rehab. She commuted between the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., and the Army’s Defense Veterans Brain Injury Center in Johnstown, Pa. Jillian also fell into a depression after her injury and lived in constant pain. She said she was “always outgoing, never serious” before her injury, something that changed after the accident.
The long road to recovery would not have been possible without Jillian’s friends and family. “If you have a real good support system, it makes things easier,” she said. “I’ve always been very family oriented,” she continued. “I have a lot of friends. When you’re in the military you meet a lot of people, but these are really true friends that stuck by me.” She also credits her service dog, a 4 lb Yorkie named Pink, with helping her adjust.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games gave her the opportunity to get back into life and give to the community. Jillian first participated in the 2009 Games and commemorated the first anniversary of her accident during the festivities in Spokane. She participated in bowling and air rifle events, in which she unknowingly won the gold medal.
“I’m not competitive at all, so I didn’t check my scores. I still don’t,” she said.
Since then Jillian has participated in the Games annually, which allow her to make valuable connections with other injured veterans. “Meeting other veterans allows me to exchange stories,” she confided. “I learn that just because I’m in a wheelchair there are still things that I can do.”
In years since, she has won the gold medal in swimming events. Jillian also volunteers as a mentor for Kids Day. This part of the Games allows children with physical disabilities to participate in adaptive sports activities with the assistance of a paralyzed veteran acting as a mentor.
“The children are so resilient and seem to take their injury better than adults,” said Jillian. “They give me hope and actually inspire me.”
She is also inspired to continue with her life regardless of injury. Jillian’s plans for the future include going back to school to earn a master’s in business administration and eventually opening her own business in Washington, D.C.
“When I have my heart set on something, I do it. I want to be a millionaire.”
Jillian will, no doubt, fiercely pursue her dream, and in doing so will have the full support and resources of Paralyzed Veterans of America behind her.
Kaitlin Inamasu is a George Washington University student and Communications intern at Paralyzed Veterans.