US Marine veteran Joey Avellone works on his boccia ball skills during the NVWG. Photo courtesy Joey Avellone.
PN Online celebrates the Marine's 240 years of service and the few and proud who serve
If you’re active with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, (NVWG) or the National Veterans Winter Sports Clinics (NVWSC), you’ve probably run across U.S. Marine veteran Joey Avellone. If you’re not, here’s the perfect opportunity to get to know one of the most highly motivated and patriotic Marine veterans we’ve ever met.
The 38-year-old Recon Marine veteran is a staple of both accessible sports events and then some. He’s tackled everything from wheelchair quad rugby to deep-sea scuba diving to snow skiing and hasn’t let his spinal-cord injury get in the way of his many successes.
In keeping with the Marine saying, “First to Fight,” Avellone wanted to be the first of his family’s history to serve in the Marine Corps as he explains to us in this week’s People of PN.
PN Online: Talk about when you first realized you were going to enlist in the military and why you chose the Marines.
Avellone: I first realized I wanted to join the Marine Corps when I talked to a recruiter at my high school. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket inspired me to be a grunt. I was supposed to go to boot camp straight out of high school, but I broke my collarbone on the last wrestling match of the year and my recruiter told me I would have to wait three months until I could go to boot camp, so I decided to go to college. After graduating, my dad wanted me to join the Army like him and both of my grandfathers, but I told him I wanted to be the first of our family to become a Marine.
PN Online: Was it your intention to make the military a career, or did you have other plans?
Avellone: I planned on making a career of the Marine Corps. I enlisted under the MCEP program (Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program), so I had to sign a contract for 10 years of service – four years enlisted and six years commissioned. I chose to go that route of becoming an officer as I was guaranteed a command with an infantry platoon. Also, the Marines I commanded would know I went through everything they did and I wouldn't order them to do something I haven't already done.
PN Online: Talk about your military occupation.
Avellone: As a 0341 mortar man, I was in the weapon company of 3rd Battalion / 3rd Marines and I started out working in the fire direction center (FDC) doing math and relaying the coordinates to the gunners. I found that to be to be too boring, so I joined the mortar squad where I started out as an “A-gunner,” dropping shells in the mortar tube. When we went on movements, I had to hump the 35-pound mortar tube along with my combat rucksack, all my web gear and my rifle. I joined 3rd Force Recon at the end of my first float with 3/3. After further training schools I was assigned to a TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) team. I was the team leader of the security forces, so I had to carry a 240-G machine gun and I was always the first Marine out of the helicopter and the last one on the helicopter. Since I went through MCWSS (Marine Corps Water Survival School), I was the rescue swimmer for the team.
PN Online: Where did you attend Marine Corps boot camp?
US Marine veteran Joey Avellone enjoying a day of scuba diving. Photo courtesy Joey Avellone.
Avellone: I went to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego … where men go to become Marines.
PN Online: Where did you serve?
Avellone: I was first stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii and a week after I got there we went to Australia. In both of my units I served with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) and we guarded the Pacific Rim, so I served all over Eastern Asia. The countries I served in include: Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Guam.
PN Online: Talk about how the military helped shape the person you are now.
Avellone: I think by serving in the Marine Corps I'm an even more confident person, I have a ‘can-do’ attitude about life. I'm not afraid to try anything or take on any challenge.
PN Online: Regarding your injury, briefly share the details of how you were injured.
Avellone: I was injured while attempting to rescue a fellow Marine in the ocean off the shore of Hawaii; I hit a coral reef headfirst. It was during a MCCRE (Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation) while doing a 50-kilometer hump around Kaneohe Bay. We stopped for a 5-minute break and I noticed him sitting on a guardrail on a small cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Then, I saw him fall and immediately went in after him.
He was actually my best friend and long after I got injured, he blamed himself and was so distraught he couldn't carry out the daily orders. The Marine Corps and Red Cross paid to fly my parents to Hawaii and stay in a hotel near the base. It became that Marine’s job to be my parents chauffeur and drive them to Tripler Military Hospital every day for about three weeks before I was transferred to Jefferson Barracks VAMC. He spent a lot of time with me in the hospital. I wasn't given an order to go in after him; I saw him fall into the ocean and just reacted with out hesitation.
PN Online: What was/is your profession after your service in the military?
Avellone: After my injury, I decided I wanted to get into politics to help veterans and continue to serve my country. I decided to go back to school to pursue a law degree. However, one of my political science professors told me I didn't need a law degree to be a politician. I graduated from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville with a bachelor’s of science in political science and ran for state representative in the 113th Illinois district.
I won the 2010 Republican primary election, but lost the general election. The following election for 2012, I was a campaign assistant for a Republican candidate for the Illinois 12th Congressional seat. We won the primary election, but lost the general election. In the 2014 election, I did social media for Gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. He won both the primary election and the general election to become Illinois' first Republican governor in three decades.
This election cycle I'm working with Congressman Mike Bost on his reelection to the 12th Illinois Congressional seat. I'm doing exactly what I planned on doing if I had served 20 years in the Marine Corps.
PN Online: What do you miss most about the Marines?
Avellone: I miss the camaraderie with my fellow Marines. I think that is one of the reasons I go to NVWG every year.
PN Online: How do you feel when you see other Marines (prior service and/or active duty) in public?
Avellone: I get excited and talk to them for as long as I can.
PN Online: Many of our readers may not understand the Marine bond. How would you best explain it?
Avellone: The Marine Corps is a brotherhood, so that makes every Marine I meet my brother no matter when or where they served.
PN Online: Do you feel your military service helped you better deal with the results of SCI?
Avellone: My service in the Marine Corps definitely helped me deal with my paralysis. I knew as a Marine I could overcome any obstacle or challenge in my way. I pushed myself to do more than what the therapists asked of me during rehab, and I still do with every new injury I suffer.
PN Online: For young people interested in enlisting in the military, what would you tell them?
Avellone: I would tell them if they want to become a man with integrity, they should enlist in the Marine Corps and go into the infantry. Then, when they decide to get out to use the GI bill to get an education and a good job.
PN Online: You’re very involved in accessible sports. Talk about how you first got involved, some of the sports you compete in and share your future goals in sports.
Avellone: My recreation therapist got me playing on a local rugby team. I didn't play in many tournaments but I showed up for every practice. I did play rugby at the NVWG and had fun competing with my fellow veterans. I became interested in boccia ball. I was training to compete in an international boccia ball tournament for Team USA, however I broke my shoulder while snow skiing at the 2015 DVWSC but am shooting for a spot to compete at the Paralympics in 2020. Four years ago my new recreation therapist got me involved in scuba diving and for the past three years I've been going on scuba diving trips to Cozumel and love it every time. I plan on scuba diving for the rest of my life.
PN Online: How did you learn about Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and how have they have helped you?
Avellone: The PVA service officer had an office in the Jefferson Barracks Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis where I was doing my rehab after I was injured and he signed me up and would often come to check on me. The Gateway PVA in St. Louis, my local PVA chapter, sponsors many of the clinics and various sporting events I attend. They also help pay for other various necessities, give out tickets to local professional sporting events and help all members stay connected by having a luncheon every month. Most importantly, PVA keeps me informed of new benefits and helps me navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and is my voice at the different levels of government.
PN Online: Have you participated in any of the sports or recreation programs? If so, which activities?
Avellone: I have gone to the NVWG 11 times and had a great time every time I went. I love to compete and hang out with my fellow veterans. I've also been to the DVWSC nine times and I have a great time every time I go. I love trying new things and competing and hanging out with my fellow veterans.
Here’s a look back at the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games and PN Online reporter Christopher DiVirgilio honoring a baseball bet with Avellone.