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Gunner’s Mate Shows Determination, Resilience at DoD Warrior Games

WEST POINT, N.Y., June 17, 2016 — Life changed for one Navy gunner’s mate while she was deployed to the Persian Gulf on Dec. 4, 2011. As sailors broke down a gun range on the flight deck and moved equipment to the missile deck one floor below, she opened a hatch and was hit in her left temple by a 30-pound armored plate bracket.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jeannette Tarqueno, who will have served in the Navy 14 years next month, said the injury caused her to have balance, speech and memory problems and that she ended up with a traumatic brain injury, along with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She couldn’t talk or walk; it was scary,” said her father, Joe Tarqueno.

Call to Service

Tarqueno said she joined the Navy because both of her grandfathers had served and her brother had shown interest in the military. She also noted that the Navy has “the best recruiters.”

“I love the water. I love to travel, and it sounded like fun,” she added.

She said her favorite part of serving was visiting different countries and experiencing different cultures. But true to her Navy career path, she said, she loves to shoot guns.

“I’m a gunner’s mate, so I like shooting guns. I had never shot a gun until I joined the Navy, but I wanted to do something I couldn’t do any other day of the week,” she said. “The .50-cal is my favorite -- it’s my baby. I really enjoy shooting it. It’s a lot of fun.”

Shooting on the range helps with her PTSD, Tarqueno said.

“It’s like a Zen moment,” she explained. “You get to just relax, and everything else is gone. In the competition environment, it’s just you and the gun. With the .50-cal, you feel very powerful and in control. It helps you release any aggression you may have.”

Making Chief

Tarqueno’s father said his proudest moment was seeing his daughter’s promotion to chief petty officer after her injury. “She was the youngest chief in the Pacific Fleet at the time,” he said with a smile. “I was so proud of her. I’m still proud of her.”

Because of her injury, Tarqueno said, she had to have someone read the chief’s test to her and fill in her answer sheet as she gave her responses. “I didn’t think I had a chance of making chief at that point,” she said. “I was in bad shape, and I tried to study as best as I could. I ended up picking up chief that cycle. It was extremely empowering.”

Warrior Games

About 250 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and United Kingdom armed forces are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball during the 2016 Defense Department Warrior Games at the U.S. Military Academy here through June 21.

Tarqueno competes in shooting June 19 and swimming June 20. Her first DoD Warrior Games was in 2012, only four months after her injury. “I was a last-minute substitution,” she said. “I was just happy to be moving at that point.”

She said she was comfortable in swimming, though she had problems with her equilibrium. But her biggest challenge, she said, was cycling.

“I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a child. I had absolutely no balance, and they put me on an upright bike, which was interesting,” Tarqueno said. “I still can’t ride an upright bike without somebody holding the bike to start and stop me, but doing that 10K, the sense of pride of just making it through and finishing it, I’ll never forget it.”

She said what made it worthwhile for her was the support of her Navy teammate, medically retired Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate DeWalt, who hand-cycles.

“We had become friends, and he had come up to me afterward, and just the proud look on his face was one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever felt in my life -- to see somebody who’s in a wheelchair because he’s paralyzed to have that much inspiration for me just because I finished and didn’t come in last place. I can’t tell you how unbelievable that felt.”

Tarqueno’s mother, Diane, said she was in tears as she saw her daughter cross the finish line. “The first time she came in on her bike and she collapsed, I was crying, and then I said, ‘Let’s get up and go,’ because I try to stay behind her and get her moving. This is just inspiring,” she said.

Tarqueno’s father said he gets emotional every time he sees his daughter compete. “She’s always been my little lady,” he said, his voice cracking.

During her second Warrior Games, Tarqueno competed as an Ultimate Champion, competing in six sports. She said she found out that running makes her go blind and learned that competing in too many sports pushed her to her limits.

Though she loves wheelchair basketball, she said, she dropped to two sports this year, swimming and shooting the air rifle, so that she could stay within her physical limits and excel. Each year at the games, she said, she has learned that whether she earns medals or not, her favorite part is being there with her team.

“The best part is watching your team take home gold medals, and to have pride and be out there cheering for your other teammates,” she said. “These games are life-changing.”

Importance of the Games

Tarqueno said she’s seen the importance of events like the DoD Warrior Games first-hand.

“I’ve seen people come off their deathbeds because of these things,” she said. “I’ve seen people who were ready to end their lives because they just had nothing, and then they come to these things and then they walk away so happy. You always feel like you are alone, especially when you have an invisible injury. I’d give a limb any day of the week to not have an invisible injury and feel alone. People just don’t understand what you’re going through.

“But you come here and realize there are people who understand and can trade stories with you and laugh with you,” she continued. “This is one of the places where you can feel normal no matter what you’re going through, no matter what injury or illness you have. And if you don’t have a family, we’re your family.”

She said she recommends to anyone considering the DoD Warrior Games to give it a try or to at least find a mentor, reach out to their local adaptive sports program or find something that works for them.
Distribution channels: Military