Sailor Overcomes Combat Injuries, Brings Home 8 Gold Medals From Warrior Games

WASHINGTON --

Despite suffering serious injuries from an attack by a member of the Afghan security forces in 2014, Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Reina Hockenberry was determined to avoid a medical retirement and stay on active duty.

And not only is Hockenberry today serving on the guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the sailor just garnered eight gold medals from her participation early this month in the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Colorado, competing in rowing, powerlifting, swimming and cycling. In late October, she also will compete in those four events at the Invictus Games in Sydney.

I was severely injured to the point where a medical retirement made sense,” she told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday. “But I can't imagine not serving in the military. It's part of who we are.

Hockenberry and 13 other American service members were injured when an Afghan soldier they were training began shooting at them. She was shot five times -- twice in one of her legs, shattering a tibia, once in the groin and twice in the stomach. She wore a metal brace on her leg for more than a year as she went through a grueling limb-salvage process in an attempt to regrow 6 inches of her tibia.

Walter Reed Treatment, Rehab

The Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient was treated and recuperated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for 18 months. During her stay there and at her request, her command gave her a laptop to continue working.

“Being in the military is embedded in us. That laptop made me stop being a patient, and it put the power of being a senior chief back in my identity. It was a big driving force,” she said.

Hockenberry hopes wounded warriors’ resilience, despite their injuries and illnesses, shows the wounds of war won't stop them from continuing on active duty and even taking part in such events as the Warrior Games. “There are a lot of opportunities for us to be just as good and in some cases better,” she said. 

Another Chance

All the stars lined up for her return to active duty, she said. “People were willing to give me a shot. I kept going, I kept getting better, and I got the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan in 2016, which was huge. I showed that I could function in a combat zone. I got to pass my physical fitness assessments, so by hitting those wickets, and people encouraging me to hit those wickets … it basically allowed me to come back to full duty.”

Hockenberry got caught up in the stigma that’s still attached to the term “wounded warrior,” she said. “I shied away from that term for the longest time because I didn't want people to think that I wasn't as much as any other sailor. Now I've learned to embrace it.

The sailors she competed with at the Warrior Games are amazing people, she said. “They have lived through stuff [that] some people didn't think they could come out of the other end, and they did. So the fact that they consider me one of them is such an honor. I don't shy away from the title.”

For Hockenberry, the bottom line is just because service members have been injured or hurt doesn’t mean they can’t give their all to serving in the military.

“If commanding officers and those in higher ranks are willing to give us a shot, I guarantee you they're going to get their bang for their buck, because we are people fighting to be there. We want to be there,” she said. “It's a part of who we are.”

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)