As a teenager about to graduate high school, Thomas Martineau dreamed of having it all — a wife, kids and a career. Although his dad served in the Navy and both of his uncles served in the Army, Martineau found the Air Force more fitting for his future, so he enlisted at the age of 18. While on active duty, right before his 22nd birthday, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that would take his life in a new direction.
The Journey Ahead
Shortly after becoming a father to his second child, Martineau was on his way home from work when a car blew past a stop sign and pulled out in front of him causing a T-bone collision. As a result, he suffered a T3 complete spinal cord injury, paralyzing him from the waist down. “It was a weird turn of events. My son was born on base in Fort Walton Beach, he was five weeks early and got life flighted to Pensacola. Three months later, I got the same helicopter ride to the same hospital,” says Martineau.
As an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force, Martineau hadn’t yet reached supervisor status but planned to elevate his career by transitioning into maintenance management. However, after his crash, that was no longer a possibility since he would not be able to turn wrenches in a wheelchair. He was now facing a journey through unfamiliar territory and searching for a different path to accomplish his dreams.
Change and Support
After three months of rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Martineau moved back to Florida where he became a Paralyzed Veterans of America member. “As soon as I got to Tampa, I found the [PVA chapter] office because I knew I would need some kind of advocacy,” Martineau says. “They were there for everything I didn’t know as far as healthcare, benefits...they were awesome.”
Initially after the accident, Martineau found himself in a funk. “I tricked myself into thinking I would have it all planned out and all together,” he says. As time passed, Martineau turned to adaptive sports as an outlet, participating in hand cycling, bowling, wheelchair basketball, and even starting a lacrosse team.
In 2011, Martineau participated in his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Pittsburgh, where he found himself in a mentoring space, building comradery with fellow athletes and learning how to get through obstacles that those close to him didn’t quite understand or know about. “I was trying to figure out life and trying to raise my kids to become productive members of society,” Martineau says. His kids accompanied him to Tampa, Florida for the 2013 Wheelchair Games, which were instrumental in providing an overlap of interests that would bring Martineau and his children together in a special way.
For the last five years, Martineau’s wife, Kiersten, has been by his side throughout some of the worst times of his injury and has been his biggest supporter. When Kiersten completed her PhD after they got married, that inspired Martineau to go back to school and pursue an architecture degree. “Kiersten really is such a positive force of nature in my life,” Martineau says.
Courage and Confidence
It’s been a battle for Martineau, but at 33-years-old, he has gained an unstoppable edge to keep going and triumph over his circumstances. Martineau is currently in the midst of a master’s degree program in architecture at the University of South Florida. He hopes to better his life and the lives of others through an accessible, barrier free environment for all people with disabilities.
On his recent trip to PVA’s national office in Washington, DC, Martineau was able to continue his focus on accessible architecture and speak with staff members who are working to make a difference in the same way that he is. “It is huge that there are people doing what I want to do and are willing to take time out of their day to let me pick their brains,” Martineau says.
Martineau is currently performing a 10-week summer internship at the University of Pittsburgh in the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, where he is working with Dr. Rory Cooper on the development of an ultra-smart kitchen. Martineau says, “What they are doing at the lab is amazing. I’m excited to have the opportunity to be a part of it.”
Stay tuned for Part II of Thomas Martineau’s story as he shares with us his summer internship experience.