Forward Motion


Michael Johnston followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and joined
the Navy at the age of 18 years. In addition to the familial link, he also
wanted to see the world and felt the Navy would give him the most chances to

Following boot camp, Johnston was stationed in Virginia Beach, Va. at
Naval Air Station Oceana and shortly thereafter checked into his new command
aboard the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy for deployment during Operation Enduring

His tale does not take a tragic turn during his deployment in the Middle
East. Once home, further from the fears that active duty abroad might bring,
Johnston was faced with them on familiar ground.


Following his deployment, the near-21-year-old Johnson returned to the
Naval Air Station Oceana. As one day of work came to a close, he followed his
normal routine and left the base on his motorcycle.

  Johnston, who joined the Navy at age 18, lost his left leg below-the-knee in a motorcycle accident after returning home.
  Johnston, who joined the Navy at
age 18, lost his left leg below-the-knee in a motorcycle accident after
returning home.
  Image: Michael Johnston

“About two miles out the front gate, a young lady was driving the
opposite way. She made an illegal left turn and it was really bad timing,”
Johnston told O&P Business News, explaining that as she
turned, he was driving between two cars, virtually hidden from her view.
“As soon as she saw me she freaked out and locked up her brakes. I hit my
brakes and skidded and hit her car.”

He does not remember much more than those brief details of the accident
that led to his left transtibial amputation.


The blur that overcame Johnston after the accident continued for some
time as he was under the influence of pain medication at Naval Medical Center
in Portsmouth, Va.

“My family reminds me of things I said and my dad says that when he
would try to talk to me about my future, I would say, ‘Dad, don’t
worry. I’m going to be the best one-legged tap dancer in the
world,’” Johnston said.

Once the medication wore off and life started coming into focus,
Johnston faced the future with uncertainty.

“It was really disheartening because there were no other amputees
at the hospital so I couldn’t talk to anybody or see what it would be like
in a couple months or a year,” he said. “I thought basically my
active lifestyle was over. I thought I would just be a hermit at the

During his more than 1 month hospitalization, Johnston began physical
therapy and was fitted for a prosthesis. He knew he had a tough choice to make.

A decision

Despite his uncertainty about how his life might progress, Johnston did
not feel that leaving the Navy was the right decision.

“I just realized that if I really wanted to be who I was and to
really get myself back mentally, I would need to prove to myself that I could
do everything I could do before,” he said. “I knew if I got out of
the military and went home, I would be lazy. I knew that if I could stay in the
military that would be my way of redeeming myself.”

Johnston decided to petition to stay in the Navy. At the hospital, he
was assigned to the staff judge advocates office to help him understand his
rights and research other amputees who have also been granted clearance to stay
in the military.

  Operation Rebound, through the CAF, gave Johnston the chance to get back into athletics following his accident.
  Operation Rebound, through the
CAF, gave Johnston the chance to get back into athletics following his
  Image: Michael Johnston

His physical limitations were called into question and he met the
challenge with longer and harder workouts and more running.

I did “all the things that people [assumed] I wouldn’t be good
at,” he said.

After almost a year of physical therapy Johnston proved to a Naval
medical board that he could handle the physical demands of service. He received
clearance to stay on active duty.

Johnston was sent back to his original unit at Naval Air Station Oceana
for a test period. After one year there he reached the end of his enlistment.

Proof positive

Johnston reenlisted for another 4 years and was forward deployed to
Japan and was assigned to the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.

The Naval medical board proved not to be Johnston’s toughest
critics. Though he did not receive preferential or different treatment, he felt
that he needed to prove himself to each new person he met.

“When I went back, I was the same motivated guy that I was before
but I felt that I had to be more than that to show people that there was
nothing they could do that I can’t,” he said. “From the moment I
decided that I wanted to stay in the Navy, I had no doubt in my mind that I
could prove myself worthy of continuing my service. This clarity, mental
strength and determination are what motivates and drives me to be able to move
forward tirelessly toward any goal or objective that I set my sights on.”

In 2008, Johnston was reassigned to Naval Air Station North Island in
San Diego. Though his second enlistment ended, he stayed on as a reservist and
now works as a parachute rigger for a helicopter squadron.

Operation Rebound

Johnston was first introduced to the
Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) in 2004, before his
forward deployment to Japan. His prosthetist introduced Johnson to a colleague
who had worked with CAF in the past.

“When he saw me running he asked what kind of mileage I did and he
asked me if I’d heard of CAF and said that if I wanted to, he would help
me get out to San Diego from Virginia to participate in the San Diego Triathlon
Challenge just as a runner. They would put me on a team of amputees – one
to do the swim and one to do the bike – and I would do a half
marathon.” Johnston said. “Before when I had both my legs, the
farthest I ran was a 10K so it was intimidating but I was up for the

He was eligible to participate in the Operation Rebound program through
the CAF which, according to the CAF website, “provides unparalleled sports
opportunities and support to American troops and veterans of any branch of
service, past and present, and first responders who have suffered permanent
physical injuries.”

The website also explains that the program “provides support
through grants which provides direct funding for the acquisition of adaptive
sports equipment, training and competition expenses, mentors for physical
training programs at military medical centers, beginner athlete sports clinics,
and an online forum where Operation Rebound members and their families can stay

“CAF has meant nothing short of the rebirth of self for me. Through
sports I have refocused on the physical abilities I have versus the abilities I
have perceivably lost,” he said. “CAF and the introduction of sports
have given me the greatest thing you can give a broken man: the ability to see
himself clearly and show him that the packaging might look different but the
person inside is steadfast and can not be so easily broken.”

Above and beyond

Through the Operation Rebound program, Johnston has competed in several
sprint-distance triathlons and Olympic-distance races. His most recent
achievement was placing third in the NYC Triathlon 2010 and therefore
qualifying for the Triathlon World Championships which will take place in
Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 11.

“Going to a world championship for anything to represent the United
States is exciting and huge,” Johnston said. “When you represent the
United States through military service, it’s kind of a cool feeling. You
feel a brotherhood. To represent the United States through sports … it
really to me just shows a different side of America, the side that people
don’t give up on. A lot of other countries shun amputees, the disabled or
even the elderly.”

  Johnston will compete in the Triathlon World Championships in Budapest on Sept. 11.
  Johnston will compete in the
Triathlon World Championships in Budapest on Sept. 11.
  Image: Challenged Athletes

In October, he will again participate in the San Diego Triathlon
Challenge and he is looking forward to more than just the thrill of the race.

“This will be … a kind of get together with all the guys
I’ve been working with for about a year and a half or so,” he said.
“It’ll be good to see everyone.”

Up next

In addition to his many feats in the world of athletics, Johnston aims
to help others.

As a result of his early experiences in the hospital and throughout the
recovery process, Johnston mentors injured veterans, including amputees.

“I tell them, ‘Whatever you want to do … the military,
society, the local community … everybody’s behind you and wants you
to get back up and keep moving forward,’” he said. “Through
sports, I have found a way of connecting with myself and others on a
non-superficial level where the only thing that truly matters is the forward
movement, the ability and recognition to make the conscious decision to finish
this race, no matter if you’re walking on damaged limbs, or have to use a
prosthesis or a handcycle.”

Johnston encourages injured veterans to become involved in sports and to
incorporate activity into their rehabilitation as he has done. Reflecting on
how far he has come in less than 7 years, he said it is hard to imagine life
before he embraced sport.

“It helps them focus once again on what it means to be alive,
feeling your blood pumping as we concentrate on our dreams and keep moving
toward them,” he said. “CAF is such a huge proponent of active
lifestyles for our newly injured veterans which is so crucial to their
recovery.” — by Jennifer Hoydicz

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