Stephen Willoby: Adapting & Overcoming

As an explosive ordnance disposal specialist in Iraq, Stephen Willoby lived by the motto “Adapt and Overcome.” Today, five years after suffering a military career-ending spinal cord injury, Stephen still lives by that motto and is steadily moving ahead with his life goals.

Stephen had once eyed a biology degree, but after speaking with an Air Force recruiter was immediately drawn to the opportunities and challenges a military career offered. While deployed to Iraq, he participated in more than 150 IED disposals. Adapting to and overcoming obstacles was a daily way of life—one that has continued since a diving accident in September 2007 in which he not only fractured his spine (C-6/incomplete), but also drowned. His life was saved when his boating partners, a rescue diver and a combat lifesaver, performed CPR and quickly got him to emergency care.

Since the injury, Stephen, now 28, has endured one month in intensive care, more than two months of intensive inpatient rehab, and continues with outpatient therapy. During this long rehab, Stephen began to prepare for his future, and participated in a Department of Veterans Affairs employment program. But he felt unable to get his counselors to truly grasp his goals and to assist his desire to become a physician's assistant. He also felt he was being steered toward a career path he in which he had no true interest. Finally, Stephen contacted Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) and Paralyzed Veterans of America vocational rehabilitation counselor Joan Haskins.

“Stephen had no civilian work experience following his military service,” Haskins recalled. “He was seeking a possible work from home position while recovering from his surgeries and preparing to attend college in 2013 to obtain a degree related to becoming a physician’s assistant.

“I began to link him with employers offering work-at-home jobs and continued counseling him on his options. Within two months he had landed a sales rep position, with a combination of office, travel and work from home.”

Stephen describes the difference in Haskins and his previous counselor as night and day. “She listened, understood, said ‘why not?’ and immediately began to find out just what obstacles lay ahead of me and how we could together overcome them.”

At VMI, a wheelchair accessibility vehicle modification company, owner Doug Eaton sees Stephen’s contributions as two-fold.  He is a sales rep but also a liaison between the disability community and the business, continually educating his employer on needs and concerns of disabled individuals, while educating the consumer on any constraints faced by VMI in meeting those needs.

Although his current job is not directly related to his eventual career goals, it is meaningful work that has helped move him outside and back into the community—something that helped greatly with his overall quality of life and outlook.

Eaton and Haskins are sold on Stephen’s “adapt and overcome” approach to his rehabilitation, and are sure he will be a success in anything he sets his mind to.

“He has a clear vision of what he wants his future to be,” Haskins said. “And Paralyzed Veterans will continue to be there to provide whatever assistance he needs to accomplish those goals.”