The trash disposal unit (TDU) malfunctioned, slinging a piece of metal into his left eye. He lost his vision in that eye. He could have lost his life.
Two and a half years, four surgeries, lots of therapy and a retirement later, Espinal joined about 40 other seriously wounded, ill and injured Sailors and Coast Guardsmen at the Navy Safe Harbor Wounded Warrior Training Camp in Port Hueneme, California, last month. There, they proved they're not only stronger than their illnesses and injuries, but probably stronger than they ever knew. They competed, they made friends, they healed. They became part of a team again.
"It's an awesome feeling," said Espinal. "We have a family. It's ohana here. It's the same feeling you have being on the boat. I feel like nothing's changed, that I still have a family here and the support. We support each other, we love each other here and we have an amazing time. And for the junior guys, I'm still there. I'm still being a chief. I still feel like I'm giving what I can. That heart, it's - nothing's changed. I'm still in the Navy, to me."
The athletes will next meet in June at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the Department of Defense (DOD) Warrior Games. There, they will join their brothers and sisters from the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command (SOCOM), as well as several allied nations, in a good-natured, interservice fight for glory and personal battles for resilience.
"I think the biggest thing is ... coming out as a team, and being the Navy team, and giving it over 110 percent as a team and supporting each other," said Espinal. "That's the biggest thing, not if we win gold or if we take medals. It's that we're going in there, challenging ourselves and giving it all that we've got."
"It's not necessarily all about whether you can hit the middle of a target or throw an implement far," agreed Ramona Pagel, fitness coordinator for Naval Base Ventura County, California, who has been involved with Safe Harbor and the Warrior Games for years. "It's you showing either your family or your family of Navy Sailors that they can succeed as well and that they can fight through things. It's very inspiring."
Sports this year include archery, indoor rowing, sitting volleyball, track and field, cycling and time trial cycling, powerlifting, swimming, wheelchair basketball and shooting. The rowing, powerlifting and the timed cycling events are actually new this year.
"I'm very excited for the sport to be added to the Warrior Games," said Michelle Buchanan, the new rowing coach and a Navy wife. "I think it allows athletes to compete in a very demanding sport, even though they may have physical limitations, and it challenges them mentally. ... My recovery goal for these athletes is for them to go home and realize they can do more than they think they can.
"As the athletes have come to me, they actually have a lot of talent," she continued. "They have this internal drive to do well and they're all incredibly competitive athletes. They were telling me today that they didn't want to take an off stroke because the person next to them wasn't taking an off stroke. They wanted to make sure that they were just as fast."
That's Espinal's attitude: do the best he can, focus on technique, on getting stronger and be grateful for how far he's come. Therapy and body building finally helped with his depression and post-traumatic stress after the TDU "incident," as he calls it. Now, he will compete in powerlifting, rowing, swimming and field events. That has made for long days of training, both at the camp and on his own, but he's determined.
"My stepfather always said, 'If there's a will, there's a way.' It doesn't matter what it is. ... I tell the young Sailors, if you put your heart into it, it doesn't matter what your disability is. Put your heart into it, just like you did when you joined, when you were a recruit and you became a Sailor. You challenged yourself there. That was your first challenge, and that hasn't changed. Nothing's changed. ... If there's a will, there's a way."