12th Recalibrate Recipient: Terri Tully

Celebrating the 12th Alive Day of SSG Travis Mills

12th Recalibrate Program Recipient: Terri Tulley

Terri Tulley’s journey from service member to recalibrated veteran and beyond doesn’t follow the typical narrative. However, an individual’s experience in the military to life-changing injury and their life after, is not often singular.

Growing up in the rural mountains of Snowville, VA, Terri wanted to “be somebody.”

“I wanted to see the world,” she said, “and I was enamored with the marketing at the time – the idea of being a small percentage of women Marines.”

Terri served in the Marine Corps for three years, serving as a 1171 utilities engineer. She received two unit awards, National Defense Service Medal and the Good Conduct Medal. Terri was injured in Okinawa, Japan, while playing soccer with her platoon, she injured herself.

“I attempted to kick the ball away from a player on the other team: we collided, legs tangled and my right leg snapped,” she said.

Terri experienced an open compound fracture to the right tibia and fibula, just above her ankle, and a post-operative bone infection that resulted in 13 surgeries before an eventual below-knee amputation in 2020 – nearly two decades after her original injury.

She credits the Travis Mills Foundation with being a pivotal force in her life after injury and supporting her in her new steps as an amputee – 20 years after the injury, through motherhood and Terri’s pursuit of recovery, wellness and athleticism.

Learn more about the 12th Alive Day of SSG Travis Mills >>>

Life After Injury

Adjustment to life out of the military was difficult for Terri.

“My time in the military was over. My hopes, dreams, identity, who I thought I was and who I thought I was going to be was over,” she said.

Terri also experienced mental and emotional challenges when it came to her injury related to the fact that she wasn’t combat wounded.

“After I medically retired, when it came to using VA healthcare, benefits, or wounded service member programs, I resisted for many years,” she said. “But I could walk, I could go to college, and I found an incredible line of work after the military. I wasn’t injured as much as others so I didn’t feel like I was enough. I wasn’t enough while I was in and I certainly wasn’t enough once I was out. VA benefits and such should be for those who need it more than me.”

When Terri got out of the military in 2003, she was able to walk but the fracture healed crooked and a bit shorter due to removing infected bone.

“I wasn’t able to run, it hurt too much to even walk, and so I didn’t run for 10 years, believing I never would,” she said, adding that she had three reconstructive surgeries after the military (2004-2006), more physical therapy, and was still left with a bone that didn’t heal correctly.

Terri’s family and friends offered support after her initial fracture.

“My parents helped and always asked how my leg was, even for years afterwards,” she said. “When I had the amputation 19 years later, I was married, my daughter was 2, and we were 7 months into Covid.”

After the amputation, the community in which Terri and her husband, Rich, lived in, offered much support.

“My village helped us with meals, childcare, wellness/adaptive workouts, flowers, celebrating small but important early milestones. My husband was able to work from home while I had months of physical therapy,” Terri said.

Their daughter had her own role in Terri’s recovery.

“My daughter had no mercy when it came to making sure she was fed and she would put stickers and bandaids on my limb and prosthesis,” Terri added. “She kept things really normal.”

After she medically retired from the military,Terri enrolled in a college class, then another until she graduated with her bachelors and masters degrees. With time, however, her tibia fracture site and gait mechanics began to deteriorate.

“It wasn’t until 19 years after my original injury, my husband’s urging, and having my daughter that I noticed deterioration in the bone and the lingering impact this was having on my life,” she said.

When it came to Terri’s husband, he gave her a different perspective on her injury.

“I was enough, this experience had an enormous impact and limitations on my life, my body, my personality, and how I experience the world,” Terri said. “Then when I had my daughter, I was faced with a completely new perspective, a grave new responsibility of being her mother, of showing her the world, of protecting her and it wasn’t fair that this injury was dictating how she experienced her mother, whether I could carry her, explore with her. When I finally agreed to go see a doctor again, I didn’t know what I was asking for; I just needed help.”

Since there was still infection in Terri’s leg all these later, and it still caused her much pain, she decided that the 6 to 8 surgeries needed to preserve the leg wouldn’t be worth it.

What was most upsetting to Terri, however, was seeing the impact it was having on her daughter’s life.

“When doctors told me the infection was back and I was facing amputation, it was no longer a conversation just about my tibia, but about my role as a mother and how to get my family through this too. What kind of mother and wife would I be, what kind of amputee would I be — a veteran but not combat wounded, not wanting to ever be misunderstood about that.”

The Travis Mills Foundation

Terri first heard of the Travis Mills Foundation while attending a support group for amputees through Walter Reed National Military Medical Hospital. The late Kelly Roseberry, Vice President of Programming at the Foundation, represented the Foundation virtually in the group.

“[She] told us all about the Travis Mills Foundation. I felt such relief and connection to the mission of including family members in the programming,” Terri said.

She and Rich, along with their daughter, attended the Retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine, for the first time in summer 2022, just as Terri’s husband was retiring from the Marine Corps.

“It was perfect timing for us to attend as a family as we transitioned into this new life, [especially] with active service and the amputation surgeries and therapy largely behind us,” Terri added.

Barrier-Free Experiences

Terri and her family took advantage of the Retreat’s many barrier-free activities, including boating, fishing, kayaking, wheelchair basketball, crafts, hiking, outings to the store and zoo, the ropes course, and date night. For Terri, however, one thing in particular will always stand out:

“Hands down, the best part was the people we met,” she said. “It was so good to see my daughter playing with the other kids and my husband making friends with the other husbands. We still stay in touch with the families and staff members we met.”

While at the Retreat, Terri immensely appreciated that kitchen staff made unicorn cupcakes for their daughter, who celebrated her 4th birthday that week.

“It meant so much to me – the care and interest they took in making her birthday special,” Terri added.

Recalibrate

Shortly after the Tulley family attended the Retreat, Terri received an invitation to participate in the Travis Mills Foundation’s Recalibrate Program, which capitalizes on a participant’s motivation after attending the Retreat. The Foundation provides financial assistance, goal setting and long-term follow up.

“I didn’t think I was ready for it,” Terri said. “I wasn’t physically ready for doing a sport or anything spectacular as I’d seen of other veteran amputees.”

While at the Retreat, a physical therapy intern from Shenandoah University casually asked Terri if she was going to participate in wheelchair basketball later that day.

“I said, ‘No, it’s not really my thing, I don’t play basketball or use a wheelchair really unless I have to.’ The intern got the biggest expression of glee on her face and said, ‘We tried it last week and it was so FUN! The wheelchairs are so cool!’”

Still, Terri relented, but said that “maybe” she’d take her daughter to the courts.

“Well, I did, we all went down to the courts and next thing you know, they needed players and I played,” Terri said. “My husband played. Another dad who was paralyzed and his kids played.”

I felt my competitive edge for the first time in I don’t know how long,” Terri added. “I was also terrible and didn’t score a single shot, but it was so FUN.”

At the end of the game during high fives and encouraging words among players, Terri had an exchange she’ll never forget:

“One of the kids said to me, ‘Now I know what my dad goes through’ – and that was the moment it all clicked for me,” Terri said.

During wheelchair basketball at the Retreat, all members of the family use a wheelchair on the court.

“The wheelchair is an equalizer,” Terri added. “It allowed all of us, of different abilities, to play together, to be challenged in new ways, not really having advantages over anyone else. That experience laid the groundwork for me after the Retreat and in participating in the Recalibrate Program.”

With support from The Travis Mills Foundation’s Recalibrate Program, Terri transitioned from rehabilitation in a clinical setting to working with a trainer at a gym near her home to continue to pursue her physical therapy goals. Terri’s gym membership included group classes where she found a trusted instructor and a therapeutic combination of yoga, Pilates and tai chi; it also has a kids playroom where Terri’s daughter could go while she worked out.

“She loved going so much that it motivated me to go, especially on the tough days,” Terri added.

Through these experiences, Terri has become more confident in trying new things, even if it means adapting or using a wheelchair.

“I became stronger so I could join my husband and daughter on adventures they would previously do without me,” she said. “We have bikes now, I swim with my daughter and I’m learning how to lap swim.”

Terri continued:

“I joined my local VA Wheelchair Games team, my family saw me wakeboard for the first time last summer, and we did our first family 5K. I am competing in the VA National Wheelchair Games this summer in New Orleans, and my husband and daughter will be there too!”

Terri will compete in two swimming events, doubles pickleball, softball, adaptive fitness, disc golf and air rifle. Terri has also added another sport to her repertoire – another moment in which she takes much pride:

“I was skeptical of joining the wheelchair games like I was with trying wheelchair basketball, because I’ve done so much therapy to learn to walk, to get out of the wheelchair. While trying wheelchair softball at the VA, the coach asked me if I play softball outside of here. With disappointment, I uttered, ‘No…’ and he replies, “Well there you go. You’re doing something new. Sit in the chair to play and when you’re done, get up and walk.”

Thank you for celebrating the Travis Mills Foundation’s 12th Recalibrate Recipient, as part of the 12th Alive Day of SSG Travis Mills. Learn more >>>