The contraption Raina "Ren" Hockenberry wore on her right leg for close to 15 months stretched from the top of her knee almost to her ankle. Known as a Taylor Spatial Frame, it featured a metal rod implanted under the skin and connected to what remained of her tibia. The device stretched the tibia a millimeter a day, in the hope of replacing 6½ inches of bone shattered by two bullets in Afghanistan.
Hockenberry was shot five times in a 2014 insider attack that killed a two-star general and wounded 15 others. That Hockenberry, then a Navy senior chief personnel specialist, recovered from her wounds and remains on active duty aboard ship is one of the more inspiring stories of the Warrior Games -- a competition for ill and injured service members and veterans -- that takes place through Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The tough and charismatic product of a three-generation military family, Hockenberry, 39, refused to take "no" for an answer, refused to listen to anyone who said she couldn't continue her career.
"There's no other way of saying it, but I'm dumb," said Hockenberry, competing in rowing, powerlifting, cycling and swimming. "I just didn't know I was hurt. I never realized how bad I was hurt. So when somebody said I couldn't do something, I'm like, 'Why? There's nothing wrong with me.' And they go, 'Well, you're leg's kind of hanging off.' And I just went with it."
The mother of a 20-year-old son, Hockenberry said she joined the Navy in 1999 so her child could experience the same military lifestyle she did. Her father was career Air Force. Born in South Korea, where her dad was stationed, Hockenberry grew up mainly on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where he retired. Her sister is career Navy, and two brothers-in-law are career Navy and Marines, respectively.
Active and athletic as a kid, Hockenberry tried almost everything, including softball, basketball, track, swimming.
"As I got older I got into cycling, and as adult, I did triathlons," she said. "I was actually training for a marathon before I got injured."
Hockenberry was part of what's known as a "green on blue" attack, by someone thought to be an ally.
On Aug. 5, 2014, Hockenberry was in an entourage accompanying Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, the deputy commander of Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, to an Afghan military academy near Kabul. The group assembled outside for a briefing when an Afghan soldier, in the window of a nearby bathroom, opened fire. He got off about 30 rounds before being killed by return fire.
Greene was the first U.S. general killed in combat since 1970, in Vietnam. Hockenberry, shot in the abdomen, groin and leg, was airlifted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
If the treatment known as "limb salvage" didn't restore a sturdy tibia, Hockenberry's leg would have to be amputated. Fortunately, it worked. Throughout her lengthy recovery, Hockenberry -- awarded a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart -- strove to remain on active duty.
"The great thing about the military is, no matter where we come from and no matter how we feel about each other, we have one goal -- to serve our country," she said. "The idea of not wearing a uniform and not standing beside people who are willing to give their life for what we believe in, that's something I can't imagine. This is where I belong. I can't imagine walking away from that."
But Hockenberry, assigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at first resisted being characterized as a Wounded Warrior. U.S. military personnel incurring a physical or mental injury, illness or wound related to their service are eligible, whether or not it happened in combat.
"Initially, I wanted nothing to do with it, because Wounded Warrior is ... a stigma," she said. "People think a Wounded Warrior is less than a person, but we're not. We're the same as everybody else. I like to tell my guys, you might not have the same normal, but you'll find a new normal.
"So when I was initially asked about the games and being involved with adaptive athletics, [I'm thinking], 'There's nothing wrong with me. I don't need adaptive athletics.'"
It took a chance meeting with another sailor, a master chief recovering from a traumatic brain injury, to change her mind. Hockenberry urged him to sign up for adaptive sports.
"He just looked at me and said, 'Hello, pot calling the kettle.'" she said. "And I thought, dang it."
"It took me a while to think about this," she said. "One of the reasons I'm doing this, I want sailors to know that just because you're hurt or you get sick doesn't mean it's over. And for the world to see, we are not 'less than.' We can be just as much as a sailor or a Marine, an airman, a soldier or anybody else. We're just a little bit different. But different isn't bad."
Newcomers to Wounded Warrior adaptive sports usually are encouraged to try multiple events -- the familiar and the unfamiliar. Rowing and powerlifting are Hockenberry's unfamiliars.
"Physically, cycling and swimming were easier because I knew it," she said. "To be honest, emotionally, confidence-wise, mentally, powerlifting and rowing are easier because it's something I've never done. We all have demons, and one of the reasons cycling and swimming are hard for me is because I've done it before. I'm comparing what I can do now to what I used to be. I think that's something we all battle, whether we're injured or not."
The Warrior Games complete an exciting six months for Hockenberry. Pacific Fleet admirals Harry B. Harris Jr. and Scott Swift, and Fleet personnel director Lynn C. Simpson, allowed Hockenberry ample time to heal, so she never faced the Navy medical board and possible loss of her career.
"I have a phenomenal chain of command," she said.
Recently, Hockenberry was assigned to the missile cruiser USS Port Royal, under the command of Capt. Christopher J. Budde, as personnel and administrative officer.
"A lot of people would be leery, but he said, 'C'mon, let's go. I want sailors who want to be here,'" she said. "So he was incredible."
"Everybody has a specialty on a ship," Hockenberry continued. "On shore duty, my job might be a desk job. But on a ship, you're anything and everything a ship needs. You're a firefighter. You're a medical response. You're an anti-terrorism response. My sailors would love it if I sat at my desk, but I'm never at my desk. I'm up and down ladder wells. I'm in spaces during drills. We're fighting fires. We do everything."
On top of it all, Hockenberry was just promoted to master chief. Four years after that awful day in Afghanistan, Hockenberry feels whole again. And inspired.
"I'm lucky," she said. "People see my injury and see that there's something physically different, and they might be more tolerant. I'm not asking for that, but they might be. Or they hear I've been in Afghanistan and they treat me like I'm something special, but I'm not. Everybody in the military does what I did."
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