Brent King's all-terrain power chair helps take him to all manner of destinations. Facebook photo.
Army veteran Brent King was in a dark place following a life-changing training accident that left him paralyzed
That was until a Vietnam amputee, then the chief of prosthetics at the Spokane VA Medical Center, bought a round-trip plane ticket for King to attend the 1995 Winter Sports Clinic in Colorado. “Following my injury, I sat at home with nothing to do; I’d stay up all night watching TV and sleep all day,” King says. “But when I got to the Winter Sports Clinic, I realized I wasn’t alone; there were more than 200 people just like me in the same room.”
King enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1988, moving from basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, to diesel mechanic advanced individual training at Ft. Knox, KS, before receiving a full-ride ROTC scholarship to Eastern Washington University. After commissioning in infantry in 1994, he suffered an 18-foot fall during a training exercise of his Infantry Officers Basic Course at Ft. Benning, GA. King regained consciousness 21 days later with the realization that his life would never be the same.
“I got married two years after my injury and four years later, we had twins,” King says. “I realized it was even more important to stay active for my kids, as I realized it would be better to hunt with my kids than to hunt for them. They stay out of trouble that way.”
Now the executive director for the Northwest chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, King traces back all of his success to this point to that first Winter Sports Clinic. He left his hometown of Davenport, WA, moved to Cheney, WA, and immediately joined the local wheelchair basketball team. He also had the confidence to build a new career, serving as a mortgage broker and general contractor supervising high-end homes. “I grew up farming, so it’s against my nature to sit around and do nothing,” he says.
He moved on to trying numerous other sports, from water skiing to wheelchair tennis to his greatest passion – hunting, fishing and trapshooting. That’s when he became involved with Safari Club International, an organization that works to protect hunters’ rights and promote wildlife conservation.
The relationship with Safari Club led to a 30-day trip to Africa in 2003, where he and his fellow-hunting buddy harvested numerous game species providing meat for the local tribal population. The organization also donated $10,000 of auction funds to start a water well in a nearby village.
Despite new challenges, including two episodes of osteomyelitis bone infections that led to the amputation of both of his legs, one in 2012 and the other in 2013, King has refused to give up his passions for sports and helping veterans. Even recently, after suffering severe burns that required surgery, King refused to give up on his commitment to the Northwest chapter’s trap shoot fundraiser. “I couldn’t let my chapter down,” he says.
He’s also never let himself down. King has para-glided off of the top of Mt. Baldy in Idaho with Paralyzed Veterans National Sports Director Ernie Butler, raced in two marathons, one half marathon and roughly 50 short distance races, and was on tap to serve as an exhibition wheelchair body builder before his recent burn injury. He hopes to eventually learn adaptive golf, return to wheelchair basketball, tennis and his love of flying the Tanarg ultralight.
“It’s never mattered whether I win or lose; I just love the competition and the camaraderie with fellow veterans,” King says. “If I was still sitting at home on the farm, I wouldn’t be doing all of this amazing stuff with and for our veterans. I’m just trying to give back what I can.”
It’s sports that have given him confidence in all areas of his life, including the ability to travel to Washington, DC, each year to lobby for Paralyzed Veterans of America and VA benefits and programs.
Still, giving him greater pleasure than anything is the opportunity to share sports with his wife, Joli, and 13-year-old twins, Cheyenne and Skyler. Most gratifying – aside from the simple time spent with his family – is the opportunity to show them what can be done against all odds.
And that’s a sentiment he hopes other veterans – who may not yet realize the variety of opportunities available to stay healthy and active – realize as they move on from life-changing physical or mental injuries.
“I’ve seen the impact that sports can have on building confidence,” King says. “The injury isn’t the end of world; you can still get out and do what you enjoy. The word ‘can’t’ should never be used. If there’s a will, there’s a way in most aspects, and just because you have to sit doesn’t mean you have to sit still.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.