Ryan Shannon Credit: Porter McLeod

Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Ryan Shannon, 30, veteran and Warrior Games athlete.

I never really had the military bug. I was in college when the Northern Illinois University shooting happened, and I read about how one man died saving his girlfriend’s life. I started reevaluating my life, based off his story. I was like, “I gotta go do something bigger than me.” I thought, “You know what, I’m going to be the first person in my family to be in the military.”

It was exactly the right choice. You grow up real quick in the military. I joined the navy, and I was stationed on a submarine for six of my nine years. I was a radio man.

But I had this three-year span of bad luck. We were in New Hampshire, getting the submarine retrofitted. A worker wanted to go home early, so he lit a rag on fire and threw it in a hazmat locker, and all that stuff went up in flames. We fought that fire for ten and a half hours. Anything related to fire now—the smells, the sounds—they trigger that night, and I have nightmares.

Then when we left New Hampshire, we had a fire drill. The alarm went off while we were sleeping. A buddy of mine was in his [bunk], the third rack up. He jumped down, and both of his heels hit me where your neck meets the base of your skull. It knocked my head between my legs and bounced my face off the floor.

Now, I’m six foot six and I chose to be on a submarine, so stitches in the head weren’t uncommon for me, but this was definitely a whole different experience. I was really dazed, and they wouldn’t let me sleep, and at points I’d get injected with epinephrine to keep me awake. Then they medevaced me. I had brain swelling and two cracked vertebrae in my neck. For 58 straight days, if my eyes were open, I had the worst headache possible.

I ended up in a [traumatic brain injury] clinic for two years. I lost a lot of memories, I had speech issues, my reading wasn’t too great. It’s not fixed now, but there’s all these different things I can do to help. Then later I broke my foot at the beach, and it was misdiagnosed for three months as a sprained ankle, so I developed this thing called complex regional pain syndrome. Basically, my brain thinks my foot is still broken. I’m in this brace-type thing, and I have a spinal-cord-stimulator implant to try to alleviate the pain.

The Warrior Games are what got me off the couch. They’re a Paralympic-style athletic competition between branches of the military. I do swimming, track, and sitting volleyball. Doing the Games has given me this family of people. They give you brotherhood and camaraderie, everything that was taken when I left the military. This year in Chicago is the first time they’re open to the public. My story is only a very small portion of what you’ll see out there. Everybody’s got a story, and nobody’s life has gone according to plan.

A funny story is, last year in my first event, I broke my foot. I didn’t know it, ’cause of course it already felt broken. I just noticed my gait was off. I ended up in the hospital, and they’re like, “You have a fracture in your foot again,” and I’m like “Awesome. That makes a lot of sense.”   v