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.
“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.”
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.