Celebrating the Air Force Birthday with Jesse Graham

Veteran Jesse Graham reflects on what made him join the Air Force and how he is training for this years’ Invictus Games

By Courtney Verrill

Jesse Graham gives a thumbs up at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio)

Paralyzed Veterans of America Mid-Atlantic Chapter member and Air Force veteran Jesse Graham thought he knew exactly what he wanted to do. At 17, he was applying to colleges to compete in track and field when something happened that changed everything.

Graham was in his senior year of high school in Washington when tragedy hit the twin towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and a switch had flipped in his mind.

“After 9/11 happened, I just felt like I had this need,” Graham says. “I needed to serve my country. It opened up my eyes to the idea that there was an honor to serving your country, and it felt like a responsibility in my eyes.”

Jesse Graham competes in wheelchair basketball at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio)

After Sept. 11, instead of meeting with college recruiters like he had planned, he started meeting with military recruiters. He was the first in his family to join the military, so he wasn’t sure which branch he wanted to join, which led him to meet with them all. After much consideration, he decided the Air Force was the best fit for him and his lifestyle, so he joined in 2002 when he was 18.

“I knew I still wanted to go to school and get my degree eventually,” Graham says. “The Air Force seemed the most apt to help you with your school and everything else.”

Originally, Graham’s plan was to do his six years in the Air Force and then get out with his degree, but that didn’t go quite as he expected. After his six years were up, he hadn’t gotten his degree yet because of his workload. He had a family, a wife and two daughters, and a house and he realized he wasn’t quite ready to leave.

“I started doing some soul-searching and I realized after my six years that I really enjoyed being in the Air Force,” Graham says. “I loved the camaraderie and the family you make and so I did an evaluation and decided I was going to stay in.”

Graham was actively in the Air Force until 2014 when he broke his neck in a snowboarding accident. He officially retired in 2015.

Rather than sulking in his injury, Graham changed his mind set and started with adaptive sports only four months after his accident. His daughters had a huge impact on his recovery.

“I knew I needed to be a father again,” Graham says. “I knew I couldn’t be a father and take care of my daughters until I learned to take care of myself, so I knew I had to focus on learning how to take care of myself again.”

Graham’s previous lifestyle also had a huge role in his recovery. He was an athlete for much of his life and over time he realized that was part of his identity.

“Getting back into sports helped me get my identity back,” he says. “It was proving to myself that I could still be an athlete like I had always been. Adaptive sports have made being paralyzed OK in a lot of ways.”

Since his injury, Graham has participated in multiple adaptive sports events such as the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Warrior Games and Invictus Games.

Graham will be attending his second Invictus Games this year in Toronto, where he will compete in swimming, wheelchair rugby and track and field. Graham was training vigorously in his race chair and powerlifting until he tore one of his pectoral muscles and was unable to lift. He’s been taking it easy and letting his injury heal, but he is ready to get into the competition.

“I have some time goals I want to beat,” Graham says. “I just want to keep improving.”

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