Warrior in a Wheelchair
John Stratton has spent most of his life fighting wars, some visible and others unseen. He can hardly remember what his life was like before pain. For more than 40 years, his knees, shoulders and back have been constant reminders of the sacrifices he made as a Marine.
Stratton spent four years on the ground in Vietnam, trekking from the swamps of the Mekong Delta to North Vietnam and back again. He spent hundreds of nights sleeping under the stars, but one evening stands out from the rest. As a squad leader, Stratton was checking on his men when an explosion roared through the jungle, lighting up the sky and sending him flying through the air.
When he came back down, Stratton landed hard on an artillery shelter. His tailbone was shattered, and his spine broken. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
Stratton Stands Up
But John Stratton was never one to give up — or do what he’s told. One day he felt someone poking him in the toe with a pen. It was his nerves. They were fighting back. After 11 back surgeries, Stratton started walking again.
He went on to do all the things he dreamt of doing while wandering the jungles of Vietnam. Stratton had a family — two beautiful daughters and three granddaughters. In his home state of Colorado, he became an assistant manager at J.C. Penney’s and later at the department store May D&F.
But eventually the war caught up with him. “Father Time catches up with you and kicks you in the butt,” says Stratton with a hearty laugh. Enduring more than 30 operations in 40 years, Stratton developed severe neuropathy and was on 20 different medications, including massive doses of morphine for his chronic pain. “Things were getting worse and worse,” he says. “I felt like a zombie.”
Stratton struggled to live on his own and take care of his home. In 2014, he and his daughters made a difficult decision. The decorated Marine moved into a Brookdale community in Denver. Safe in his new home, the first step to recovery was getting off of morphine. “I damn near died four times, twice at the VA because of withdrawals, but now I’ve finally gotten that junk out of my system,” he says proudly. “I never want to go back on that stuff.”
A New Life
In some ways Stratton believes Brookdale saved his life. “This place has been good for me,” he says. “I get to socialize a lot, and I don’t regret it in the least. I still miss my house, but the staff and people here are amazing.”
With a support system for recovery, Stratton began building up his strength. Though he has the highest possible disability rating from the military, nearly every day, Stratton leaves his motorized wheelchair to climb eight floors — 220 stairs — with ankle weights on. “I know if I fall wrong I’ll probably be a paraplegic again, but I’d rather get up and move around,” he says. “Exercise gets your muscle strength back and helps with your pain.”
Getting in the Games
Stratton was visiting the VA a few years ago when he spotted a poster for the National Wheelchair Games. It felt like a calling. After completing some paperwork and attending some classes, Stratton made it through regional, state and national competitions in five sports: pistol, rifle, archery, bowling and bocce.
Pistol and rifle were a natural fit given his sniper experience in Vietnam, but wielding a 50-pound bow with a 30-pound draw took some getting used to.
In August Stratton attended his second national wheelchair games in Orlando. “The best thing about the Games is the camaraderie. You get to talk to all the guys you’re competing against,” he says. “They still call me ‘jarhead.’ And if they were in the Air Force, I’ll call them a ‘prop jockey.’ It’s all in fun, and you get to talk to people from all over — Great Britain, France, Canada and Puerto Rico.”
After beating a French athlete in an early round of bocce, the man gave Stratton a pin with a French bulldog on it. “It’s neat, because we get to share stories,” he says. “You sit down next to somebody and just start talking. Most of us have similar backgrounds. Those of us who are restricted to a wheelchair, there was usually something that caused it.”
Though Stratton occasionally dreams of going to the big show — the Paralympics — for him, it’s not even about the competition. “I’m not thinking about winning or losing, I’m thinking about doing. Medals are nice, but I don’t think I’d enjoy it any more if I had a piece of metal,” says Stratton, who won a bronze in bocce last year. “I just want to have a good time.”
Competition of One
The Wheelchair Games have given Stratton a whole new reason to stay active. While watching TV in his apartment, he exercises on four different machines, including a bike, a core machine and an ab machine. In addition to climbing stairs four to five times a week, he also uses the gym at his Brookdale community a couple times a week.
With his steely blue eyes and a shock of curly white hair, Stratton seems much younger and more vibrant than his 75 years. When people shake his hand they always say, “woah, what a grip!”
And despite his litany of injuries, he’s always helping his neighbors open pill bottles and get salt out of shakers. He also encourages his neighbors to become more active.
“Exercise livens you up,” he says. “It changes how you feel, about yourself, your life and others. Anything you can do you get your mind off of your age, like the classes, games and entertainment offered at Brookdale, those things will take you far. Just get out and do something. I really believe that if you can be content with where you’re at, your life will be better for it.”
A Man in Full
When he’s not exercising and training for next year’s games, Stratton is recovering some of the life he lost when he was on morphine. He goes to the movie theater three blocks away, and now that he has a better powerchair, he often travels to the grocery store by himself. “I go all over the place,” he says. “I take off and go shopping — just to get out.”
Stratton even packs a lunch and visits Observatory Park, just to enjoy the weather, read a book and watch people play games. He loves to read David Baldacci books and gives them away to neighbors and staff once he’s done with them. “Reading takes you away too,” he muses.
In addition to exercising and having a positive attitude, Stratton believes in laughter. “Something will just pop into my head, and I’ll get a laugh from someone. That creates endorphins; it helps with pain. I’ve had to learn these things the hard way, but if I can instill a spark or plant a seed that makes someone think differently, it might just grow and make them change what they are doing.”
Stratton admits to being somewhat of a rabble rouser at Brookdale. He loves teasing the “little old ladies.” “I have this really loud horn that sounds like the roadrunner, so I like to scoot up next to them in my chair and ask if they want to race. They always joke and say ‘here comes trouble’ and ‘you’re going to get a speeding ticket.’”
The Invisible War
Despite his positive attitude, in some ways, Stratton has never left the battlefield. He continues to wrestle with the scars of Vietnam. Out of 26 soldiers who entered boot camp together in 1967, Stratton was the only one to survive the war.
Some days it’s hard for him to escape the jungles of his youth. That’s why he shares his Brookdale apartment with his three precious cats, Snow, Shadow and Sky. They are all designated emotional therapy cats who help him with his PTSD. “They really help me get my mind off of stuff.”
What sustained Stratton through those long years in the jungle? “My main goal was to somehow survive,” he says. That same iron will that brought him home from the war has also brought him through pain, trauma, addiction and even aging.
The Wheelchair Games has opened up a universe of veterans’ activities for Stratton. “I went up to Snowmass last winter, and they put me in a toboggan with a guy on front,” he recalls. “They were going to take me down the beginner’s slope, and I said, ‘No, I want to go to the highest point, and I want to come down fast.’”
At 6-foot, 1-inch and 172 pounds, Stratton jokes that he was never on the football team. He was just a skinny guy with a daredevil willpower and a drive to succeed, to survive, to live another day, to keep pushing through the pain.
“Halfway back on the road of recovery,” Stratton jokes that he’s more “metal than bone.” He’s so full of pins and screws and rods and plates, he should probably be averse to risk. But Stratton has the stubborn heart of an adventurer.
“I’m going to have even more fun this year,” he says. “I heard about this zip line the Denver Police Department has, and I can’t wait to try that one out. I want to do even more things — go farther and faster.”