Fish Out of Water
Facing Tragedy and Adapting to Life with Sports
It was a sunny, mid-spring afternoon in Port Hueneme, California, at the Navy Safe Harbor Wounded Warrior Training Camp. Water splashed loudly as swimmers dove into the pool, the trainer's thunderous voice overpowering the sound of limbs cutting through the water.
Rock music played through the speakers, adding to the adrenaline-ridden atmosphere as swimmers pushed their bodies past their limits, and teammates and family members cheered them on. Occasionally, the barks of service dogs rang throughout the open-air swimming pool.
Finally, at the end of training, a large man built like a tank slowly maneuvered out of the pool. He patted his service dog, Liberty Bell, as he swapped his special swimming goggles for sunglasses. His wife handed him his cane, and they walked to a metal picnic bench. A friendly man, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Fry smiled as he greeted everyone alongside his wife, Carrie.
"I've been in the Navy for just over 30 years," he began. "I joined in late 1987 at the ripe age of 17. I enlisted for UDT [underwater demolition team], back in the day, to be an underwater welder."
Fry's drive for adrenaline and adventure was what initially brought him into the Navy. He recalled the Navy's motto back then: "Navy. It's not just a job, it's an adventure." Robert didn't want to be like everyone else from his beach hometown, where everyone surfed. He wanted more.
The fifth week of boot camp, he was given the option to get out under honorable conditions because the Navy was overmanned. Determined to stay, he chose another rating, aviation electronics technician. Then he was pipelined for search-and-rescue, which he knew little about at the time, except for the popular movie, "Top Gun." From there, he remembered, it was a career filled with adventures. From rappel school to combat search-and-rescue and dust-offs with the Army, he had one opportunity after another to venture out and see amazing things.
"As my career and time progressed, those adventures kind of dwindled so I took up challenging sports," he said.
A self-styled endurance junkie, Fry participated in marathons, triathlons and open ocean swim competitions. He was training for the Fuji Ultra Marathon. Then, one day, something happened that he could have not anticipated in his wildest dreams - or nightmares.
"I was serving forward-deployed over in Japan and I suffered a traumatic brain injury [TBI]. That was the final straw," explained Fry. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back, and that was the tipping point for me and my whole life."
In his early years, Fry most likely suffered from multiple concussions, according to doctors. However, these concussions were medically undocumented because, compared to today, awareness and knowledge surrounding concussions and brain injuries were limited in the '80s. As a result, his last TBI was devastating.
Carrie, who was with Fry when the incident happened, said, "Initially, we didn't realize how bad it was, so it was a progression with all this. I think, really, when we got to Walter Reed that was the 'oh my' moment for me, realizing our lives were really fixing to change. ... It's kind of a surreal moment when you realize your life is going to be very different than what you envisioned."
Days that were meant to be focused on career and family shifted to rehabilitation and acceptance. For Fry, accepting his situation was one of the hardest challenges he had to confront. A man who once considered himself very physically fit and active, he struggled to understand that he was dealing with not only vision, balance and memory problems, but a condition that would leave him unable to ever drive or even ride a bicycle again.
"It was a shocking moment, was when the doctor said I wasn't going to drive again," he recalled. "You think that's the worst, and the rest starts stacking up and it's tough. And I can tell you there were a lot of dark moments where I was just like, 'That's it. I'm done. I'm out. I don't want to hear another thing that's wrong with me. It's bad enough I have to live with this thing that's wrong with me, but to keep telling me it's just worse and worse?' It just didn't seem fair."
Fry's TBI didn't just affect his wife and children, but also his friends and shipmates, as they too struggled to realize the depth of the situation and wondered how to support someone going through something that is not easy to understand.
"None of your friends want to talk to you; they just don't know how to deal with it," said Fry. "They see somebody who's larger than life, just collapsing under the pressure and they don't know how to help you so they just withdraw, and it leaves you alone and all you have is your family. It's a burden to your family, because they now have all of your bad days."
Fry's doctors suggested rehab and therapy. After several months, Fry met someone who would change his life for the better. Georgia Monsam of Safe Harbor was full of tough love, which he initially resented. She was also empathetic, but willing to put all of her efforts into getting people back on their feet.
"[I needed] someone to tell me, 'It is what it is. Overcome it. Let's see what we can do to move forward.' And that should be what the hallmark of Safe Harbor is," said Fry. "Getting people to move beyond that point where they just feel kind of hopeless and give them a renewed sense of purpose and give them something new to focus on. Turns out you may be good at something you've never tried."
Monsam knew that adaptive swimming would be the best fit for Fry at the initial Safe Harbor Wounded Warrior Training Camp. He also signed up for cycling, rowing and shooting (pistol). He will compete in the Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, this June.
"I thought I wasn't going to get back into any type of sports," he said. "I lost the ability to ride my regular bicycle because of my balance, and it was just one blow after another. First it was no driving, now I can't ride a regular bike, and then you start walking with a cane. I had no aspirations or thought it was going to happen. Then I went to the Bethesda, Maryland, training camp and I realized adaptive sports is just that, they adapt."
For Fry, adaptive sports meant a one-way ticket getting back into what he loved, swimming, and even finding other sports for which he might have a passion.
"My call sign is 'Fish,'" he explained. "It's been continuity throughout my career, swimming. I've always done it, and it's not hard for me. It's relaxing. It makes me feel normal in the pool, [and] that's where I am very comfortable. I am comfortable underwater or swimming through the water, so I was very, very glad that I made the swim team, and I push myself to the limit every time I get in the water with the coach."
The training camp is not only about Fry pushing himself past what he thought were his body's limitations, but also pushing his teammates to perform to the best of their abilities. For Fry, it's not about winning, but about representing his Navy in any way he can and making new friends.
"We can pick on each other. It's that same type of camaraderie you have on active duty and that's a [sign] of liking somebody when you have that banter," he laughed. "I need more of it in my life and I think I can speak for everyone on that. We get together and we bond really [quickly], even though we're from all over. So, if I had to pick one thing that they focus on at Safe Harbor, it's that we get more of that, more of that kind of camaraderie. ... It really doesn't matter what your background in the service was or any of that; we're all the same. It's a neutral playing field; it's comforting and you can let your guard down. It's nice."
Thanks to Safe Harbor, Fry rejoined his Navy family in a new way, got back into the sport he loves and found new shipmates among those who understand his condition. For Carrie, the training camp has helped her as a spouse and caregiver. She also appreciates seeing Fry get back into the things he loved to do.
"I am very excited for him," she smiled. "When he got his letter that he was selected for the team, I was jumping up and down. I know how much it means to him. I love seeing him push himself and I love seeing him with the team. I love seeing him push other people. It's been one of the best things for him."
"She's definitely my biggest fan," said Fry, gazing adoringly at his wife of 28 years.
Ultimately, Fry, who wants to spread awareness about Safe Harbor, service dogs and veterans with disabilities, gives this one last piece of advice to newly injured Sailors:
"I would talk to them about the myriad resources that are going to be available. ... If they reach out to Safe Harbor, it'll change their lives for the better. They're already at the bottom, so you can only go up from here. So let's reach out to Safe Harbor and let their name do what it says: Let them bring you in and protect you in these waters that are very tough to navigate."
To see the other story New Shipmates, click here