Despite Dark Times, New Jersey Guard Recruiter Never Loses Hope

JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – All eyes are on New Jersey Army National Guard Captain (CPT) Domenico Lazzaro as he walks up to the podium using two canes.

It’s Oct. 18. Seventeen months have passed since CPT Lazzaro’s life changed due to a training accident.

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” he says.

For the next 45 minutes, he tells the story of how he has come to stand in front of the Soldiers, Airmen and civilians at Joint Force Headquarters located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He calls it: “Don’t dis my disability.”

On June 11, 2017, CPT Lazzaro fell while navigating an obstacle course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst during annual training and fractured his T8 vertebrae in the middle of the spine.

After seven hours of surgery, the doctors had fused five vertebrae from the thoracic to the lumbar regions.

In one day, CPT Lazzaro went from racing motorcycles and being an avid weightlifter to being paraplegic.

For most people, this would have been the start of coming to grips with a new reality, taking into consideration the accommodations they might need or the things they might not be able to do again. Others would simply give up.

CPT Lazzaro didn’t.

Three weeks later, something peculiar happened.

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen).

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen.)

“After my injury, I had a buzzing sensation in both legs similar to the feeling you get when a leg falls asleep, but I could not move them.”

CPT Lazzaro began to have some feeling in his foot.

“The first evening, I stayed up all night moving my left toes.”

According to his doctors, this was unusual, because recovery occurs from the point of injury down, not the other way around.

“The doctors kept pushing me to move things, so I did,” says CPT Lazzaro.

This was not the first time that he had faced adversity.

In 1991, while a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s is a cancer in the lymphatic system where cells grow abnormally and can spread to other parts of the body.

For the next two years, CPT Lazzaro underwent radiation treatments. After 20 years, he is cancer-free.

In 2009, he reenlisted in the New Jersey National Guard and received his commission in August 2011. From 2015-2016, CPT Lazzaro deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the 328th Military Police Company’s executive officer. Upon his return, he accepted a full-time position as a specialty branch recruiter. Then last year’s accident occurred.

Because of his injury, CPT Lazzaro was given the option of medical retirement with disability.

“I want to continue to serve,” he says, refusing to give up.

In order to continue his service, he must be able to pass the Army physical fitness test in two years.

From July to December 2017, CPT Lazzaro was in a wheelchair. Then he used a walker until January 2018.

“I switched to forearm crutches from February to June, and started using canes from June until present,” he says.

During this time CPT Lazzaro was in intensive physical therapy.

“Once I started moving, I began using a glider – a type of upright elliptical that uses your arms to move the legs.”

He also uses an electronic stimulation bike that uses electric pulses to move his legs to pedal a bicycle, an exoskeleton harness that mechanically moves the legs, and locomotor training, while physical therapists move each leg and his hips to simulate walking on a treadmill. This is all combined with basic leg strengthening exercises.

All these devices serve one purpose: helping CPT Lazzaro learn to walk again.

Today, he can move with the aid of one cane.

“The more I progressed, the more I could do on my own,” he explains. “The physical therapists say my progress is staggering.”

CPT Lazzaro is back at work with specialty branch recruiting and serves as the 42nd Regional Support Group’s anti-terrorism officer.

He also spends time working with other paraplegic patients.

“I try to help people get past the idea that they can’t recover,” he says.

Because of his experiences, he brings one thing that is sometimes missing from other people: hope.

“Hope is very important,” CPT Lazzaro says. “Believing things will get better with time can help you progress and adapt to your situation.”

It is hope that drives him.

“I want to go back to my life the way I was,” he says. “I want to be the person I was.”

If you’re passionate about helping and healing others like the medical professionals who helped CPT Lazzaro, visit our job board and explore health care careers in the Army National Guard.

Being a Soldier in the Guard means serving your community and country while making a difference. The Guard provides education assistance, and offers training in more than 150 career fields including engineering, logistics, infantry, and aviation. Reach out to your local recruiter to learn more.

From an original article by MSG Mark Olson, New Jersey Army National Guard, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in October.

 

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North Dakota Guard Soldier Gives Back to His Former School in Ghana

SPC Dennis Duku hands out backpacks to schoolchildren at the Dadwen Schools Complex in western Ghana, which he attended years ago. (Photo by AFRICOM.)

SPC Dennis Duku hands out backpacks to schoolchildren at the Dadwen Schools Complex in western Ghana, which he attended years ago. (Photo by AFRICOM.)

ACCRA, Ghana — When he first left Ghana for the United States at age 20, Specialist (SPC) Dennis Duku had no idea that his life would come full circle. Or that he would find himself giving back to his elementary school, a place that helped him become who he is today: a Soldier in the North Dakota Army National Guard.

The story began in 2008 when SPC Duku and his family left Ghana to join his father who was living in Virginia to finish his education. When the family later moved to Moorhead, Minnesota, SPC Duku decided to join the Army National Guard.

“I always knew I wanted to join the military,” he says. “I joined the North Dakota National Guard after I found out I could serve my country, my State, and still work full time.”

SPC Duku joined the 188th Engineer Company, out of Wahpeton, as a heavy equipment operator and plumber.

He later learned about the State Partnership Program (SPP) between the North Dakota Guard and the West African countries of Ghana, Togo, and Benin. An opportunity to visit Ghana came when his unit was chosen to participate in United Accord, a multinational joint exercise designed so the U.S. and its African partners could train together and build readiness across 22 different countries.

“When I found out it was my team that was going, I wondered if I could do something for my people,” says SPC Duku.

He spoke to his wife (also from Ghana) and they decided to purchase backpacks and crayons for the students at his old school – 400 backpacks to be exact. When packed, the items filled 12 suitcases.

“I learned that when I travel on official capacity (in the military), I can have up to five pieces of luggage. That’s when I needed to ask others to help me with the remaining seven.”

His fellow members in the 188th Engineer Company were more than happy to help with anything they could. One of those Soldiers was Sergeant (SSG) Rachelle Barendt Klein, a squad leader in the unit, who first heard about what SPC Duku was doing when he was unloading the extra bags at the armory.

“The unit was supportive. They helped load and unload the extra bags and haul them through the airport,” says SSG Klein. “The suitcases were packed light, so they could check the bags without paying the airport fees. SPC Duku and the rest of us spread and shared his story, with pride, when anyone in line would ask.”

Once in Ghana, the entire company wanted to help at the school, but logistically, it was going to be more challenging than expected. In the end, a team of three made the trip.

“Everyone wanted to come with me. I was overwhelmed; I wanted to help my school, and everyone in my unit wanted to help my school, too. It was really surprising to me. I was really excited,” says SPC Duku.

It was about a six-hour drive to SPC Duku’s school, Dadwen Schools Complex, in the western part of Ghana. When the team arrived, they were greeted by Ghana’s municipal chief executive and hundreds of excited school children.

“The level of excitement was surreal,” says SSG Klein. “I look back and I am not sure who was more excited – us or the kids. SPC Duku talked to the kids, old classmates, and teachers. School songs were sung, (there were) prayers, hugs, so many smiles, happy tears. SPC Duku was so humble. He repeatedly pointed out how he just wanted to give back.”

The children at the school were walking a very long distance to use the washroom, so SPC Duku bought and donated 100 bags of cement to begin construction of a new washroom closer to the classrooms.

“In terms of class, my school would be considered third-class,” says SPC Duku. “They lack certain things. They have good infrastructure, but as far as student amenities, they do not have basic things. I left there [Ghana] in 2003 and have never been back since. When I saw it again, it was the same as when I was there. Nothing had changed in those years. It looked like no one was helping. I became the local hero; they were really happy to see me and my guys.”

During the same trip, SPC Duku’s unit, with the help of Soldiers from the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, Ghana Armed Forces, and the Royal Netherlands Army, also built and donated 40 desks to L&A Memorial Academy, another school in Accra, Ghana.

Giving back is one of the many benefits to joining the Army National Guard. Other benefits include education assistance and the ability to serve part-time in a job (Military Occupational Specialty) of your choice. If you’re passionate about making a difference in your State and country, contact your local recruiter for more information.

From an original article by MAJ Amber Schatz, Joint Force Headquarters, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in November.

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From Parkour to Hard-Core Athlete: Indiana Guard Soldier Competes on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

SGT Michael Bougher of the Indiana Army National Guard took sixth place in the “American Ninja Warrior” Indianapolis City Finals this summer, earning him a shot at winning $1 million in the National Finals in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of “American Ninja Warrior.”)

SGT Michael Bougher of the Indiana Army National Guard took sixth place in the “American Ninja Warrior” Indianapolis City Finals this summer, earning him a shot at winning $1 million in the National Finals in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of “American Ninja Warrior.”)

Michael Bougher didn’t exactly set out to conquer grueling obstacle courses on national television when he walked into a local gym three years ago.

The Indiana Army National Guard Sergeant was just looking for a way to stay in shape and have fun at the same time. This led him to a parkour class at the gym – only the class had been cancelled. Instead, he was invited to try out the first obstacle for the gym’s new Ninja Warrior class based on the popular NBC reality competition show, “American Ninja Warrior.”

“I’d always watched the show as a kid. I never thought I’d be a part of it,” he says. “I was really excited to give it a try, and actually ended up making it up the 14-foot warped wall on my very first try.”

That’s all it took to get SGT Bougher hooked. He started helping the gym build more obstacles, which eventually led to testing obstacles for the actual TV show when it built a course in nearby Indianapolis.

Chosen to compete on the show for the first time in 2017, SGT Bougher came back stronger in 2018. He found himself hitting the buzzer with the best time in the “American Ninja Warrior” Indianapolis Qualifiers, earning a spot in the City Finals. There, he finished sixth overall, claiming a spot in the National Finals in Las Vegas, which aired in September – without showing SGT Bougher’s run.

His bid to win the $1 million prize ended with a 15-foot fall into the water from the Double Dipper obstacle. There were various factors at play, but bottom line: “My head wasn’t in it.”

SGT Bougher can be spotted wearing his signature orange T-shirt on “American Ninja Warrior.” He’s hoping to compete on the show again in 2019. (Photo courtesy of “American Ninja Warrior.”)

SGT Bougher can be spotted wearing his signature orange T-shirt on “American Ninja Warrior.” He’s hoping to compete on the show again in 2019. (Photo courtesy of “American Ninja Warrior.”)

“There’s always next year,” says the 23-year-old. “I’ve just got to remember to keep my head a little bit better.”

If he’s invited back for season 11, you can spot him wearing his signature, self-designed orange T-shirt that gives a shout out “to pretty much everything that I do,” which besides the Ninja aspect, includes working as an EMT, playing on a rugby team, and serving as a 35F Intelligence Analyst for the Indiana National Guard, which he joined as a junior in high school.

Looking back at enlisting in the Guard at age 17, “it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.”

Because Guard service is a part-time commitment, SGT Bougher has the flexibility to work full-time as an EMT, attend college full-time at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he majors in criminal justice with a minor in psychology, volunteer at his local fire department, and teach a kids’ Ninja class, where one of his students is competing on “American Ninja Warrior Junior” on the Universal Kids Network.

“I have my life, and I have a family life,” he says. “I can still be a Soldier when I need to be, and that is great.”

Plus, the Guard “comes with a ton of benefits. They pay for my college 100 percent. I get the GI Bill, which helps to pay for books, and I can get as much additional training as I want to. I’ve been to some 400 hours of additional training for my MOS (military occupational specialty) specifically.”

As an Intelligence Analyst, his job is to take information from fellow analysts, infantry, or scouts who are gathering signals, human, or geospatial intelligence, and bring it all together.

“Essentially, I need to know everything that’s going on, be able to make sense of that information, understand why it is happening, and be able to brief it all to the Commander, as well as what we need to do about it.”

SGT Bougher got the chance to use his skills for a seven-month-long, real-life mission in Kosovo without having to leave Indiana.

“I’ve done a bunch of training, but it was really cool to see my work going toward something that’s actually happening.”

There are more military trainings in his future, too. Army Ranger School is on the horizon for next summer, and he’s taking on the Army Master Fitness Trainer course this month.

“I just want to go to every school that they can send me to.”

An Intelligence Analyst with the Guard, SGT Bougher deployed to Japan in late summer as part of the Guard’s Pacific Pathways mission.

An Intelligence Analyst with the Guard, SGT Bougher deployed to Japan in late summer as part of the Guard’s Pacific Pathways mission.

Because of his experience as an analyst, SGT Bougher believes that once he finishes his degree, he has a number of civilian career options, from working for the FBI or another three-letter government agency to working as a contractor overseas. But his end goal is to work in local police, fire, and EMS.

“I like helping the community around me, and I feel good about doing those jobs,” he says.

The desire to help his community is right in line with his service in the Guard, where a Soldier’s primary base of operation is in his or her own State.

SGT Bougher’s advice for anyone considering joining the Guard is to talk to a recruiter who will hopefully talk about the good aspects of service, but not shy away from anything negative.

“You’re going to miss birthdays, you’re going to miss holidays because you’re going to be at a training for this and that, but it’s all for the better of the country and the State. You’re going to come out of it a better person.”

So, if you are interested in a part-time job where you can serve your community and your country, and still have time to pursue a civilian career or other interests, our job board is a great place to start doing some research. Career fields include intelligence, engineering, mechanics and maintenance, military police, infantry, and more. Then, contact your local recruiter to learn more.

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