The Wounded Samoan Warrior
One Sailor's journey to recovery
Even inside a gym filled with chatter and laughter, he stands out. Built like a NFL linebacker, there is no question he is an athlete. He seems a little out of place, but he lines up in formation with the rest of his team and they begin doing warm-up drills on the freshly-glossed basketball court.
With each step, his face slightly winces in discomfort and his grip tightens on the cane that's helping him walk. Despite the pain, he still manages to put a smile on people's faces.
"My first name is Pou, can you guess my last name?" he asks with a grin broadening across his face. "It's Pou. My name is Pou Pou, you know, like the police."
In the Navy, he is known as Information Systems Technician 1st Class Pou Pou, pronounced Po-Po. But, after nearly two decades of service, that part of his journey is coming to an end. His injuries will not allow him to continue his career.
"It's been hard," said Pou. "Every day, you anticipate that pain. It follows you everywhere. It's hard to explain: It's like a feeling of electrical pulses from your back down to your toes. It's a constant pain, an irritating feeling type of pain."
The biggest injury happened when he was on deployment.
"I was on a rigid hull inflated boat (RHIB) heading from my ship to an Australian ship," said Pou. "I'm not sure if the driver was trying to show off, but he was going pretty fast, and there were large swells. I was at the bow of the RHIB, and suddenly lost grip. Next thing I know, I'm in the air and slam my back against the area where the steering wheel was.
"I thought I broke my back. I laid down for a while, until the pain went away. Knowing me as the big guy, I went on board and finished the job."
Although his back was not broken, the injury caused sciatica nerve peripheral neuropathy. Things only got worse after his first surgery when the incision got infected. He went to receive a second surgery to wash out the infection. After an additional two surgeries, he developed Failed Back Surgery Syndrome.
Since an early age, the gentle giant has had to overcome pain.
"My father passed away when I was 13," explains Pou, who was born in Fitiuta Manu'a, American Samoa. "I only had my mom and my little sister, so I became the man of the house back in our village. One day, I woke up and decided I had to do something with my life and help support my family, so I walked down to the nearest Navy recruiting station."
In 1997, Pou headed to boot camp, and later reported to his first duty station, USS Abraham Lincoln (CNV 72), as a radioman. He went on to serve aboard two other ships and multiple shore duties in San Diego and Hawaii.
"It made me proud to be in the Navy and be a Samoan warrior," said Pou, who stands 6 feet 4 inches. "It means a lot to me, being in the Navy and carrying on that legacy of a Sailor and sea warrior."
His warrior spirit has helped him fight through countless hours of physical therapy including aqua-therapy, medical massage therapy, cupping therapy and acupuncture. In addition to his back problems, years of weight lifting and basketball have taken a toll on his knees. So much, that he's gone through four knee surgeries.
While doctors try to help his body physically recover, it is the mental anguish that Pou battles with the most. Dealing with the pain, day-in and day-out, has had an impact on his temper.
"The process I'm going through right now - it's hard," said Pou. "I have outbursts. It comes out of nowhere; I'll just snap. It has to do with a lot of the stuff I create in my mind from all of the stuff that's going on with my body. I want things a certain way, it's an OCD type of thing. I will literally stay up all night, mop the floor and straighten up my wife's closet. I make sure the hangers are in a certain way and that they're color coordinated. I know it sounds weird."
Pou admits, that at times, it can be hard to live with him, but he credits his wife and family as playing a big role in the recovery process.
"They've been very supportive - especially my wife," he said. "They help me out a lot with my recovery. I know it's hard; it's been hard on everybody. I know they see something different in me now. I'm a different person; I can see it myself. But I'm getting there. I know there's help out there and I'm working towards it."
Much of that help has come after he was introduced to Navy Wounded Warrior program.
"A good friend of mine was telling me about this program that was for the wounded warriors," said Pou. "He gave me a point of contact and I called. It was exactly the support I was looking for."
However, getting onto the Navy's Wounded Warrior team took more than just a simple phone call. Participants must compete in several different sports and only the best qualify.
Fortunately for Pou, he was one of those selected.
"It was 3 a.m. and I saw an email from somebody from [Washington] D.C.," said Pou. "The first thing I saw was 'Congratulations IT1 Pou.' I woke up my wife. I was screaming, 'I made the team!' I know the neighbors must have been really mad. But, I didn't care. I was happy. I just turned on the lights and prayed."
According to Jessie White, Team Navy's archery coach, Pou's teammates have also benefited from his participation.
"He keeps everyone else inspired," said White. "He keeps them upbeat. When you have a guy like that on your team, you don't get those lows in your training cause he keeps everyone excited to be here."