GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) — Raised primarily by his grandfather, a Navy veteran of World War II, Brian Conwell dreamed from an early age of serving his country in the military.
“He instilled in me the ideas of duty and of patriotism,” Conwell recalled. “I did some checking and it turns out a member of my family has served in every conflict since the American Revolution.”
The dream was deferred for a bit as “life got in the way,” but on July 27, 2006, Conwell, now 41, joined the Army and knew immediately that he had found his calling, his true purpose in life.
Trained as a generator mechanic, Conwell spent a year in the reserves, then went on active duty in 2007. His first overseas posting was to Germany, but in November of 2008 he headed to Iraq.
With his mechanical skills, Conwell was in demand in the war-torn country, keeping equipment running and also serving as a gunner for his commanding officer when they went up and down the highways of Iraq.
Conwell returned home late in 2009 with the intention of not simply serving the 20 years in the Army necessary to qualify for full retirement, but rather “until they got tired of me and kicked my butt out.”
“I was a good soldier,” said Conwell, who had risen to the rank of sergeant. I was good at training other soldiers. I was in top physical condition.”
TRAGEDY CHANGES EVERYTHING
On Jan. 7, 2014, just as a new year was beginning, Conwell was driving a vehicle on-base at Fort Riley in Kansas. The vehicle hit a patch of black ice, went airborne, and crashed.
Nearly a month later, Conwell woke up in an Army hospital.
His left leg was gone, amputated above the knee.
His right leg contained 30 screws, four plates, and a 10-inch steel rod.
Even more devastating was the knowledge that his military career was over, done, finished.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I really just did not know.”
Returning to Gaston County, where he had lived before joining the military, Conwell faced both emotional and physical issues for which he was unprepared.
He alternated between periods of involvement and purpose and times of deep depression. Weighing a solid 249 pounds at the time of his injuries, he saw his weight balloon to 400 pounds by late 2015.
Once a powerful, athletic man, he was now confined to a wheelchair.
His purpose in life, he said, had been lost.
A LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Conwell made a turnaround in his life in the early autumn of 2020, a time when America was about to enter the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was tired of looking in the mirror and not seeing the very best me that I could be,” he said of the change in direction. “I wanted to be happy again. I realized that I simply could not allow the negative things to conquer my life.”
A motivation for change was the influence of his son Anthony, 20, and daughter Julia, 17.
“Everything I have in my life, I owe to my kids,” he said.
Part of turning his life around was enrolling as a member at Planet Fitness in Belmont. Soon, he found himself thinking about competing in the National Veterans’ Wheelchair Games, which will be held in New York City in August, and the 2024 Paralympic Summer Games, to be held in Paris.
Planet Fitness proved to not only be supportive of his efforts at getting back into shape but soon agreed to be his official sponsor as he drives toward his goal of competing both nationally and internationally.
In the Wheelchair Games, he hopes to compete in wheelchair basketball, the 100-meter sprint, rifle/pistol shooting, and the shot put.
When he began working out in October, Conwell weighed 350 pounds. Now, he is down to 278 with a goal of dropping 28 more.
In addition to working hard on his own conditioning, Conwell is coaching youth sports at the Stowe Family YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Gaston County. He also gives motivational talks to veterans and other groups.
“I tell people they can take negatives and turn them into positives,” Conwell said. “I tell them they’ve got to learn to be happy with themselves. You’ve got to look at yourself and smile. Once you reach that, everything in life is OK.”
As the conversation with Conwell nears its close, he is asked about Memorial Day and what it means to him.
“It’s about honoring my brothers and sisters who served with me and all who came before us,” he answered. “It’s about the sacrifices that have been made, the service that has been given, the lives that have been lost. It’s special and I hope everyone will treat it that way.”
This article was written by BILL POTEAT, The Gaston Gazette from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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