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Focus on Service

Gunshot to Champion:

An airman's Invictus journey

In a slow motion memory that in reality was a blink of an eye, medically retired Airman Brett Parks' life changed in an instant.

Oct. 17, 2012 started as a normal day, but would end with Parks fighting for his life.

Behind his local gym in Jacksonville, Florida, Parks heard a man screaming for help and went to help. Parks intercepted the robber, who unbeknownst to Parks had a weapon hidden in the pocket of his sweatshirt; he shot Parks through the sweatshirt and ran. Parks recalls fighting to stay awake from the arrival of paramedics to right before he was whisked into emergency surgery.

I knew if I closed my eyes, I would never open them again," - Brett Parks

The bullet shredded one of his kidneys, went through his colon, and severed his right venae cavae, the major artery that allows blood to flow to the leg. Parks was in a coma for 20 days and when he awoke the doctors told him they had to amputate his right leg below the knee.
Four photo collage (L-R) bootcamp photo; in hospital after shooting; shaving while in recovery; learning to walk again

Park recalls the moment of realization that his life had changed and the panic he felt from it.

"I knew I wasn't going to be in the Navy anymore, I had a 17-month-old son and my wife was pregnant with my daughter," Parks recalled.

I turned to my wife and asked her, 'do you still love me?' And she looked me right in the eye and said 'Brett I didn't marry you for your foot.' The moment she said that I knew it was going to be okay." - Brett Parks

Parks had more than 20 surgeries in the following five months and would spend the next four months after that recovering, including learning to walk with a prosthetic leg.

Parks' medical case worker had been trying to introduce him to Navy Wounded Warrior - Safe Harbor, which is the sole Navy organization for coordinating the non-medical care of wounded, ill and injured Sailors and Coast Guardsmen. The program provides individually tailored assistance designed to optimize the success of the wounded warriors' recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration activities.

In 2014, Parks' case worker caught his attention with an e-mail titled "want to go to Hawaii?"

Parks would attend the 2014 Wounded Warrior Pacific Invitational, where he would take home gold medals in swimming, and track and field events and silver in sitting volleyball. In September he would join other service members as part of team USA and travel to London for the inaugural Invictus Games.

Meeting other service members with traumatic injuries Parks said there was an initial thought that his injury didn't compare to those injured in combat; like somehow his wasn't as bad.

"When I think of my injury compared to other guys that got injured overseas I'm like 'oh man they really got it bad because they're actually in combat, in battle,' but that's my inner monologue," said Parks. "But nobody shows it. They [other service members] look at me as I'm injured and there's a guy I'm close to and he got shot a few times over in Iraq, but we look at each other as bullet brothers. It doesn't matter where the bullet came from; we just know that we got shot."

With the amazing support from his wife and children, Parks also has the help of his service dog Freedom.
Three photo collage (L-R) with his wife; with Freedom his service dog; holding one of children.

Initially Parks thought service dogs were for service members with combat-related injuries, but advice from his therapist changed that and Parks put his name on a two-year wait list to be paired with a dog. A service dog would help him with his PTSD and with tasks such as retrieving items such as a phone or keys and helping him get up if he fell.

Only six months later he received a call telling him there was an open spot and a dog was available if he was interested.

"Of course I was [interested]," Parks recalled.

After a few minutes he asked what kind of dog it was. A poodle. Parks balked at the idea of having a poodle as his service dog, but one Google search later and Parks learned that standard poodles, bred as hunting dogs, would weigh up to 50 pounds and shed much less than other breeds.

Freedom, sporting a red and blue mohawk, does not fit the stereotype of the typical service dog, but this white standard poodle never leaves Parks' side.
Three photo collage 2016 Invictus Games (L-R) sitting volleyball; with his service dog; taking off his prosthetic leg

In May 2016, Parks, his family and of course Freedom traveled to Orlando, Florida, for the 2016 Invictus Games. A member of team USA's sitting volleyball and swim teams, Parks with his infectious personality and thrive for competition was seen and heard throughout the games.

His charismatic smile and cheers for his team helped bring team USA to a gold medal finish in sitting volleyball and a silver in the mixed 4x50 meter freestyle relay.

Later this month Parks will compete in sitting volleyball and swimming at the 2016 Warrior Games in West Point, New York.

Parks said he hopes to eventually compete on Team USA in the Paralympics.

*Editors Note*
The man Parks saved made it out of the shooting unharmed. Nearly three years to the day of the shooting, Courtney Phillips, the man who shot Parks on the fateful October day, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

For more information on the Warrior Games 2016 click here.