Update: Parks told New Times via email that he had officially made the Wounded Warrior Games in swimming, track and field, and seated volleyball. The games take place Sept. 30 - Oct. 4 in Colorado, but Parks will remain in Jacksonville to train until then, he says.
Original post: On October 17, 2012, Brett Parks -- a Naval Airman student stationed in Jacksonville studying to be a flight engineer -- heard a scream behind his local fitness center. As he approached, a woman yelled, "Robbery!"
Parks bolted after the robber and caught up to him. He tried to subdue him. Then he heard a gun blast.
"I was shot in the abdomen," he says. "And the bullet trajectory went down and it shredded my kidney, blew up a third of my colon, and severed my venae cavae, which is the major artery that allows blood flow to your leg. I was in a coma for 20 days, and when I woke up, I didn't have a kidney, I didn't have a third of my colon, and I didn't have the lower part of my right leg."
The robber was later captured. Parks' wife, Susan, was seven months pregnant with their daughter when he fell into a coma. His son was just 17 months old at the time.
"When I woke up, you know, everything changed, and I turned to my wife, and I said, 'Susan, do you still love me?' and she looked me right in the eye and she told me that she didn't marry me for my foot," he says.
Still, the consequences Parks faced nearly wrecked him.
"I felt like my body wanted to die every day and my mind wouldn't let it. I even was crying one day in my hospital bed, my mom was there, she asked what was the matter, and I told her straight up, 'My body wants to die, but my mind won't let it.' In total, I had about 23 surgeries in the first five months, and there was always another complication. I felt very hopeless for a number of months."
He'd spend about four months recovering, learning at one point to walk with a prosthetic leg. His caseworker from the Navy, though, kept suggesting something to help pick him up. Try the Navy Safe Harbor, she'd remind him over and over. The program supports vets who were injured in some way inside or outside of combat -- be it a lost limb, PTSD, a brain injury, etc. -- and gathers them to compete in a number of athletic events, like cycling, seated volleyball, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.
The proud Miami Palmetto High grad balked at first but relented after months when his caseworker hit him with one hell of a subject line in his inbox: Wanna go to Hawaii?
Parks participated in the Wounded Warrior Pacific Invitational in January where he did "very well," which is kind of an understatement. He took home gold medals for the 100-meter freestyle, the 50-meter backstroke, the 100-meter relay, discus, and shot put, and he took silver in seated volleyball and the 50-meter freestyle.
The event was life-altering for Parks, who for the first time found folks to whom he could truly relate.
"When you get injured the way some of us have been injured, a lot of motivation and a lot of wind gets taken out of our sails. We just feel like we're less -- we're like second-rate citizens in our head. What Navy Safe Harbor does is they get us together and they help lift us up through athletics and competition. It helps our self-esteem and our confidence and gets us all together so we can understand that we're not alone in this, that we're together in this. As far as family goes, family is great. Family supports us 100 percent, but they also don't truly know 100 percent what we are going through as injured vets. What happens is we get together with each other and all I have to do is shoot one of my brothers a look and he knows exactly how I'm feeling, he knows exactly what's going on with my brain. There's a complete understanding between each other.
"When I got there, I met a group of guys and girls that were just great," he continues. "They understood what I was going through, and I got to see where they were at. They were far ahead of me, so I knew where I could be eventually. It just really helped me. One thing that sticks in my mind that they told me is: You always take two steps forward, but get ready for that one step back. After that, you're still ahead of the game. They just told me that it's a slow process but where you are today is not where you're going to be tomorrow."
Where he'll be September 30 through October 4, however, is still up for dispute. Parks participated this past weekend (June 4 to 7) in trials for the Wounded Warrior Games, which take place in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Each branch of the military is allotted a team of 45 members to compete in the various events. The trials have room for about 85 members, according to Parks, so only about half the participants will get to go.
As for his chances to make it, Parks doesn't hesitate when asked, though he does laugh. "Man, I don't want to sound arrogant," he says, "but I'm probably about 98 percent sure I'm going to make the team."
Parks admits he's better now than he was before the accident in many ways -- "I can appreciate things better; I can tell I have that air-is-sweeter-and-the-colors-are-more-brilliant thing," he says -- but he knows every time he succeeds and triumphs and people learn about his success, they also learn about what brought him here. And then they ask that damned question again.
So, do you regret trying to save that man?
"People ask me that all the time," he says. "They ask me, 'Was it worth it?' I actually did wrestle with that for a while. It's one thing to say something now, but when it's 3 in the morning and you haven't slept in two days because you're in so much pain, it's tough to assess it then. But a couple of months after it all happened, I decided -- of course it's worth it. Doing the right thing is always worth it, no matter the consequence. That's what I go by, because if I would have turned and looked away, I'd still be in some deep regret right now -- that I didn't stop and that I was the guy that turned the other way, and I didn't want to be that guy. Even though I lost a leg, a kidney, and a colon, man, I did the right thing, and I can lay my head down at night and know that I had the integrity and the character to stand up against what was wrong. I don't want to be known as the man that walked away, that turned the other way. I want to be known as the man that did the right thing when I was called to."
And indeed he will.
Sometime in the next two weeks, Parks will learn if he's made the team for the fifth-annual Wounded Warrior Games. We'll the update the post when we find out. In the meantime, check out his nonprofit called Second Shot Ministry.
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