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Attitude of gratitude key to resiliency for disabled civil servant

Kevin Waterhouse, along with his service dog Jade, serves as the wing commander’s secretary for the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. He was in an accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He didn't let that get him down or stop him from achieving his goals of getting an advanced degree, writing a book, and getting a federal job. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shelton Sherrill)

Kevin Waterhouse, along with his service dog Jade, serves as the wing commander’s secretary for the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. He was in an accident at age 17 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shelton Sherrill)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- It is Friday, March 21, 1997, in Yucaipa, California. The final spring break of high school has commenced. What better way to celebrate than with the clamor of conversation and laughter among good friends.

The boyish compulsion to impress girls at any cost and the youthful mindset of invincibility included riding in the back of a truck on a seemingly innocuous afternoon drive to pick up a friend.

For Kevin Waterhouse, then 17 years old, spring break came to an abrupt end when he was riding in the bed of the truck and the driver lost control on a curve, crashing into a home at 80 miles per hour.

The impact of his body against the cab of the truck resulted in, among a gruesome laundry list of injuries, his spinal cord being severed in three separate places leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

Spring break was not the only thing that ended for Waterhouse that day. His cross-country pursuits. His dream of attending the Air Force Academy or enlisting to serve in the Coast Guard. His ability to walk. All dashed in an instant.

“I never once considered that I might not have the use of my legs someday,” said Waterhouse. “It never crossed my mind as a possibility, so all of my planning was military. Air Force, Coast Guard, police, maybe and all of a sudden I can’t do my plan, my backup plan or the backup plan to my backup plan. I had to refigure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

Almost 22 years, two degrees, countless people young and old being influenced by his story, and one book later, Kevin now serves as the wing commander’s secretary for the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

After such an accident, especially at such a young age, one would expect a grieving period or maybe a period of depression to have occurred, but Waterhouse said he never went through a “why me?” phase. He credits the support from those around him as his initial catalyst towards resiliency and being able to rise to the new, unexpected challenges he was faced with.

Despite the physical setback, Waterhouse said being in a wheelchair has taught him a lot and given him valuable insight on the subject of resiliency and has allowed him to teach and help others.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resilience is defined as the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress or an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Those black and white explanations suffice for non-human elements such as a business model or a memory foam mattress, but human challenges are so unique to each individual facing them that resiliency cannot be defined or explained in so few lines.

For Waterhouse, there is a lot of learning and adaptation involved in order to be resilient.

“Resiliency,” he said, “is having faith that no matter what happens you are going to have the strength to get through it or that you already have the strength to get through it. You just have to learn how to tap into it.”

He also said an important factor of resiliency is gratitude. Focusing on and being grateful for what he has rather than lamenting over what he has lost allows for Waterhouse to maintain a positive outlook and attitude which provides him with the ability to move forward.

After his accident, in his quest to figure out what to do with his life, Waterhouse said he traveled the country for 15 years. He worked at camps, volunteered at places like the YMCA and visited newly disabled people in hospitals with his service dog, Jade, to lift others up.

“Extend the hand of service,” Waterhouse said as advice to those facing a challenge. “There is nothing like losing yourself in service to help you be grateful for what you have.”

Just like any other person’s path in life, except for the part where he was in a wheelchair, Waterhouse did from time to time face adversity in the form of people underestimating his capabilities.

Shortly after the accident, he revisited his life-long aspirations to serve his country by talking with an Air Force recruiter post-accident thinking surely there was still some way he could serve his country. The recruiter explained to him that due to his physical disabilities, the best way he could serve the military was to go home and pay his taxes.

Waterhouse, not allowing anyone to dictate his capabilities took the advice with a grain of salt and continued to push himself, despite setbacks like losing his leg and all of his toes to infection. He pursued higher education at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas where he graduated first with a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and later with a Master’s in the same subject area.

After finishing his education, his life-long desire to somehow serve his country just like his Army Ranger father and his government-employed mother remained. He took matters into his own hands and said he filled out over 180 job applications for federal employment. Evidently those efforts paid off and landed him with the Air Force Reserve as a civil servant in December 2017.

Col. Jennie R. Johnson, 403rd Wing commander, hired Waterhouse.

“I was so impressed by his positive attitude, personality and accomplishments,” she said. “There is no job too big or small. He attacks every project with enthusiasm. He is a great addition to our staff and this wing.”

“The leadership team here has been very supportive,” said Waterhouse. “They gave me my shot and gave me the chance to get in.”

Surrounding himself with supportive people, believing in his ability to adapt and remaining grateful no matter what, continues to be the pillars of resilience for Waterhouse every day.

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