For Army veteran Janine Spears, it’s hard to imagine the missed opportunities that would have resulted if she had simply taken the safe route and listened as she was told.
It all began in 1983, when Spears, after completing basic training at Ft. Benning, GA, saw a poster for the U.S Army Airborne School. “I told my recruiter I wanted to go Airborne, but he said ‘No, that’s not for females,’” Spears says. “But the poster didn’t specify whether it was for male or female soldiers, so I continued to ask why.”
Spears’ persistence paid off: she attended one of the first co-ed classes at the Army Airborne School, and was the first woman to wear the green beret as a combat telecommunications specialist in the 5th Army Special Forces Unit at Ft. Bragg, N.C. “Being assigned to Special Forces as a woman was huge because prior to the 80s, women were only attached to Special Forces units as nurses,” Spears says. “It was really fulfilling and exciting, and I remember being 20 years old and feeling like I could do anything.”
Despite that positive energy, trying to prove herself as a strong, viable woman in the Army also proved traumatic. In 1983, after attending her graduation from Advanced Individual Training, Spears was raped multiple times by a fellow student. In fear for her life, she kept the crime in secret for more than 20 years.
Still, having managed to move on in silence out of eagerness to excel in her Army career, tragedy struck again in 1984, when Spears, just days after suffering a car accident, was injured when her parachute malfunctioned during a training exercise at Ft. Bragg. The accident compressed her spine, diminishing her ability to walk.
The years following were dark for Spears, forced to deal not only with her injuries, depression, post-traumatic stress and fibromyalgia, but also the loss of her mother. “I was in a dark place,” she says. “Because of the depression, I generally didn’t go out unless I was with family.”
Light finally began to fill that dark place in 2012, however, when Janine visited the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago for what she thought was to fill a prescription and return home. That was until she met two women in wheelchairs who, on behalf of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, were encouraging disabled veterans to sign up for the Midwest Valor Games.
Spears’ mind began to flash back to her athletic teenage and young adult years, when she was active in sports from track and field to target shooting to tennis. “I was in a place where I wasn’t active because it was so painful for me to move,” Spears says. “But then I went to the hospital and saw these ladies in wheelchairs who were full of sunlight and energy, like nothing could stop them.”
Playing back to her strength and spirit in the Army – when she was unwilling to accept defeat simply for being a woman – Spears decided it was time to no longer let her disability define her. She opted to try archery and was instantly in love, so much that after only a few practice sessions, she purchased her own bow.
After only six practice sessions over a six-week period, Janine was on her way to the 2012 Valor Games with her new bow in hand. Her life – and so much she had lost over the many years since her injury – had changed.
“I learned that I could still do things, even in my diminished capacity,” Spears says. “I felt like I had been half a person for so long, and now, I could come outside again.”
Not only did she win the gold medal in archery at the 2012 Valor Games, another aspect of the competition changed her life even more. She met a fellow veteran’s service dog, Cody, and instantly knew she was meant to have one of her own.
“It’s because of Cody that I have a dog,” Spears says of her beloved dog, Vylkis. “He’s my constant companion, my protector, my friend and my nurse. He reminds me to take my medications, and when I get depressed, he pulls me out of it.”
It was through the Valor Games that Spears also became involved with Paralyzed Veterans of America, moving from archery to air rifle shooting to other adaptive sports.
“The people I see at the events are so encouraging and helpful, and I haven’t encountered that in a long time,” she says. “It’s the military environment and camaraderie, and I’ve missed that. It’s good to feel capable again.”
With her new lease on life, Spears is determined to help not only fellow veterans with disabilities but also women veterans who have experienced sexual abuse as part of their service. Last year, she spoke at an event sponsored by 100 Women Making a Difference, which presented a $20,000 grant to War Dogs Making It Home, a nonprofit that pairs rescue dogs with wounded veterans.
“For me, it took 20 years to find the courage to be able to say that it happened to me,” Spears says. “But the moment I said it, I started to encounter other women, and it was contagious. The need for help is so desperate that there needs to be more people out there talking.”