CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Water resistance training is part of Sgt. Phillip Cornejo's physical therapy regimen.
Soldier rebuilds his life
The Warrior Transition Program offers injured troops a holistic approach
While instructing a close-combat martial arts class at Fort Sam Houston one afternoon, Sgt. Phillip Cornejo stepped in to flip his sparring partner and his shoe wedged itself into a divot in the ground. Unable to free his foot, and before he could yell out, he was spun around 180 agonizing degrees. The weight of his 200-pound partner crushed down on his twisted leg, breaking multiple bones from his ankle to his hip, in such quick, loud succession, the soldiers thought they were under machine-gun attack: "Hey, is somebody firing on us?" he recalls one buddy yelling.
"I tried to wiggle my toes but couldn't. I knew right away I had to keep it together, and keep from going into shock."
Sgt. Phillip Cornejo / Assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Schofield Barracks
Cornejo's 15 years of martial arts competition and a nursing background instantly told him that he'd broken nearly every bone in his leg: "I tried to wiggle my toes but couldn't. I knew right away I had to keep it together, and keep from going into shock."
The real shock came later, when doctors prepared Cornejo for the possibility he might never walk normally.
Now assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Schofield Barracks, Cornejo pursues his new mission: to heal. Mirroring 35 Army Warrior Transition units nationwide, Hawaii's 5-month old Warrior in Transition Program provides recovering soldiers with a mentor/guide, case manager and primary care manager, all working in concert with therapists, doctors, nurses, technicians and other specialists to provide critical support to injured soldiers and their families.
Therapists help soldiers to design injury-specific exercises, then coach them to peak performance levels.
"The program's approach is holistic, offering a wide range of choices," explained Lt. Col. Harold Xenitelis, Warrior Transition Battalion commander. "The premise is to encourage the soldiers to set their own objectives, and then help them help themselves to reach those goals."
His wheelchair now history, Cornejo's current workouts include self-styled water-resistance training in swimming pools, and horseback riding.
He does customized water push-ups while gripping the pool edge. Front facing down, he allows his body to float to the surface. Pushing up while simultaneously lifting his body out of the water, then slowly lowering himself, he benefits from a full-body workout.
For a mind-and-body workout, Cornejo turns to the equine. He recalls riding horses as a boy, but then neglecting this tradition of his Apache and Persian ancestors, not truly appreciating the synergy of two living beings mutually benefiting from tandem exercise.
His injury has led to the spiritual reawakening of his American-Indian roots, he said. "I see my life as having come full circle: I'm back on a horse again, and this time, it's as if the horse is my legs."
And completion of one life circle could well signal the start of another: Cornejo imagines using his rediscovered love of horses to help other soldiers who could use another set of legs in their quest for injury-specific fitness. Once his current mission is complete, Cornejo hopes to earn a degree and stay in the Army, not as a martial arts instructor, but as a medic.