Shaun Castle, left, mentoring a child with disabilities at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games. PVA file photo.
Army veteran Shaun Castle determined years ago that he had the potential to be a voice for all veterans
One reason is that Castle – with his one-of-a-kind charisma and outgoing personality – loves to talk. He’s also a rising star in wheelchair sports.
“I couldn’t imagine years ago lying in a hospital bed that I’d be here,” says Castle, a medically retired military policeman who was paralyzed in a training accident while stationed in Germany in 2004. “But one thing I’ve always been able to do very well is talk. I know most veterans are shy, so if my contribution is to share the story, then it’s all worth it.”
Originally from Horseheads, N.Y., Castle served five years in the Army, during which he served three deployments to Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia and performed missions to the Middle East. In 2002, he served as a protective services officer to two different four-star generals – Gen. Burwell B. Bell III and Gen. Montgomery Cunningham Meigs.
But as the training accident put his military career in jeopardy, Castle underwent a lengthy a prosthetics surgery in hopes of walking again. While successful, the Army forced Castle to medically retire. “I went from being in a chair to being able to walk again,” Castle says. “The Army wouldn’t let me stay in because of the prosthetics, so I asked doctors in Germany if I could go back to work as a police officer.”
Castle did just that, working a short stint as a private sector police officer at a Georgia retirement community before deciding to settle in his beloved state of Alabama. All was well until 2010, when Castle felt two jolts of pain down his legs and fell to concrete. Doctors determined the weight of his 30-pound duty belt over time had caused further damage to his spinal cord.
Not only was a second surgery unsuccessful, Castle learned while undergoing treatment at the VA medical center in Birmingham, Ala., that he had a life-threatening allergy to all pain medications and muscle relaxers, a complication that nearly took his life and forced him to resort to natural methods of pain management.
“I was in the hospital for four days and had no idea my body had developed an allergy to all pain medications – even Ibuprofen,” he says. “My body shut down, and I was within hours of being dead.”
Yet Castle fought through, and in the process discovered that while his mobility from that point on would require a wheelchair, it did not mean he could not still have a full life. His VA recreational therapist encouraged him to pursue adaptive sports at the Lakeshore Foundation, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that promotes physical fitness for people with disabilities.
“I walked into the Lakeshore Foundation and saw the Olympic rings, and determined that I was going to be a Paralympian,” Castle says. “I spent the next year and a half practicing six days a week for six hours a day.”
The hard work paid off, as the now-collegiate and professional sports star plays for the University of Alabama’s men’s wheelchair basketball team and the USA Developmental team. He’s also played professional wheelchair basketball in Lyon, France.
Now at the University of Alabama playing wheelchair basketball and pursuing a degree in Modern Media, Castle hopes to have a future career in radio. An advocate for Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Lakeshore Foundation, Castle has participated in numerous radio spots and other promotions in which he’s known for making even mundane topics – like MREs (meals ready to eat) – sound interesting.
A longtime Buffalo Bills fan, Castle also attended a Bills game and tailgated with former Bills quarterback Jimmy Kelly and served as an honorary captain in the SEC Championship football game. He has also hung out backstage with Bruce Springsteen, was featured in a music video by Randy Houser and was the feature of a major promotion by Regions Bank.
“At least 30 different days in the last year, I’ve said this to Steph,” Castle says of his longtime girlfriend and now fiancé, Stephanie Jones. “If I ever complain about anything, remind me of days like today. I’m profoundly humbled by the opportunities I’ve had and to hear people say that I’m good at what I do.”
Castle’s hard work in sports and media also have brought him closer than ever before to accomplishing his three bucket-list goals. A lover of Christmas, Castle says two of those goals involve being in a Christmas movie and being in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The final goal is to see Bruce Springsteen play Rosalita – his mother’s favorite song to dance to – at Madison Square Garden.
“Everything has splintered off of one moment,” Castle says. “I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for the injury.”
Still, while humble and appreciative of his success thus far, Castle says that future decisions – from the years he has left to play basketball to his full plate of media appearances – all come back to his one true love – fiancé Steph.
“The best part is I can take her around the world,” Castle says. “But after all this is said and done, and everyone wants to stop the appearances and radio spots, it’s just going to be her. When I felt like I was going to die, she’s the one who held my hand, and what it all comes down to is just me and her.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.