What kind of person chooses to volunteer large amounts of time to a non-profit after enduring a sexual assault, major injury and chronic body pain, survives major lung surgery after battling meningitis and epilepsy, and even today struggles some days to get out of bed? That would be a person of fortitude and bravery, like Dawn.

Dawn Martin, recently appointed chapter coordinator for the Heroes on the Water chapter at Brooks Army Medical Center, has spent a lifetime in service. Starting at 18 years old, she left her friends and family behind to join the Navy – not an easy thing to do, particularly for a young person.

“I grew up in the type of small town where people just seemed to stay. It was a very poor area and career opportunities were limited and there was a very negative feeling towards the military. I did not have the support of friends, family or the community and even had rocks thrown at me from a group of people who found out I joined the military” said Dawn. “It was important to me to get my diploma and move toward something bigger. The Navy was it for me.”

Dawn was ready for a new lease on life, but did not just take the first position the Navy offered her. It was only after three or four offers that she felt compelled to accept the offer as a Cryptologic Technician.

“It was worth the wait and an absolutely fantastic job,” said Dawn. “Unfortunately, there were soon to be so many negatives to overcome that it took away from the joy of the job.”

Dawn was violently assaulted by a military officer within the first six months of her new Navy career, an unfortunate circumstance that impacts many female military personnel.

“I was devastated. My vision of the military was wrecked, and I ended up with PTSD from the experience,” said Dawn. “Like many who endure a traumatic experience, I turned to alcohol. Fortunately, I was able to get into alcohol rehab where I received mentoring from others older than me. At 20, I was blessed to have so many life lessons provided to me so I could remain on a more positive track.”

In spite of the devastation, Dawn remained in the military for 12 years. Unfortunately, she did not have a way to deal with the PTSD, depression and anxiety. Additionally, she had two falls that caused injury and chronic, uncurable pain.

“I was unable to perform my PT tests because certain motions caused extreme pain,” said Dawn. “After being reviewed by a medical board, I retired. It was heartbreaking.”

Life After the Military 

Dawn’s post-military career allowed her to stay close to the military without actually being in the Navy. As a Special Agent for the government, she traveled the state of Texas performing inspections of contractor facilities who performed on government contracts. For 10 years, she enjoyed this new career. Unfortunately, PTSD and epilepsy reared its ugly head.

“I was still able to keep my job, but things became worse when I got meningitis and then was diagnosed with epilepsy as a result of the disease,” said Dawn. “I was no longer allowed to drive a government vehicle so I took the bus, cabs, rides from friends and my husband even took time off to help me get to the facilities. A normal person would have given up but I continued to do this for 4 years and still received commendations on my job performance. I refused to let these challenges get me down.”

While Dawn is to be commended for her tenacity, the rigors of her position were eventually too much to handle, particularly in light of the large amount of driving required for the job. The government recommended medical retirement. It was during that time, I decided to have stomach surgery to try to get some relief from an ongoing issue.

Unfortunately, Dawn’s surgery went poorly.

“I got a septic infection in my stomach and lung cavities and almost died. I was in a coma for six days, and in the ICU for three weeks” said Dawn. “They were able to get the infection under control but not before it had hardened around my lung and caused my lung to collapse. The thoracotomy surgery was complex and intense, and included having to peel the outer layer of her lung.

“It’s the most excruciating pain imaginable. Most people have no concept of how much the body can endure,” said Dawn.

From Perishing to Peace 

The pain was unbearable. Dawn could not sit up for more than 15 minutes at a time, could not have a conversation, and spent her days lying on the sofa for an entire year.

“I basically deteriorated. My muscles atrophied and I struggled to breathe,” said Dawn. “I had accepted that one day I would just die on that couch.”

Yet Dawn wasn’t really ready to give up. It was during a visit with her pain doctor that a switch flipped.

“He told me that there was nothing he could do and that I had to accept that I would have to take a huge amount of medications and be in severe pain for the rest of my life. I said no, this is unacceptable and the fight to get my life back started. I knew this was not me. I’ve accomplished everything in life I wanted to, and was not going to let this keep me down.”

Dawn found a new pain management doctor who taught her how to use her brain to think about pain differently and to overcome daily challenges. She learned that just because she was in pain did not mean she had to suffer. Dawn said, “I am going to be in pain either way, so I would rather be in pain skydiving, at an art museum or riding on the back of a motorcycle then being in pain laying in bed.” Suffering was a choice and she decided against it.

“It’s through God’s daily guidance that I’m able to keep going. I got off more then 15 medications I was taking, and now only take 2. Pretty soon the old me came back.”

Dawn went on to say,

“One of the biggest lessons I received was that I would rather be out enjoying life than lying there waiting to die.”

Her husband, Paul, quit his job to become her full-time caretaker. They were looking for ways to begin improving their lives after overcoming so much diversity. And that’s when they discovered Heroes on the Water.

“It was November, and really cold, but Paul and I decided to go to the outing at BAMC,” said Dawn. “I had never been in a kayak, but was willing to go in spite of the cold temperatures and rain.”

Not great fishing weather, so it was not a surprise that they did not receive any bites. But Dawn did receive something even better.

“When I was on the kayak, the pain disappeared,” said Dawn. “The feeling of being out there with other veterans and with people like me who had disabilities brought forth a healing power.”

“When I tried to get out of the kayak, I had to crawl. But I did not care. There is complete freedom on the kayak.”

Dawn decided that getting out to volunteer might help her fill some of the void she was feeling, but after two years of volunteering with other organizations, she could not find a fit. That was when she got the call.

“The previous BAMC chapter coordinator, Brandon, called and asked us if we would be willing to take over the chapter. It was a long two days, and we prayed the entire time. When he called and said we were good to go, I knew it was what we had been missing in our lives – giving back to other veterans and providing the gift of peace that you get from kayak fishing.”

Dawn and Paul now work on the BAMC HOW chapter full time, with an eye toward helping as many other chapters as possible.

“Being asked to do this is a God-send for me. While I cannot handle all the physical aspects, I’m perfect for the fundraising and administration. Paul is the muscle,” said Dawn. “We make a great team.”

Dawn knows that she could have chosen a different path and allowed all her challenges to destroy her or give her a negative world view.

“Life is beautiful and you only get one. To waste it being negative or not giving your all is sad,” said Dawn. “Even though I struggle to get out of bed and still have to use a cane or wheelchair, every Thursday I’m out with HOW no matter what.”

Dawn has dedicated her life to serving, first in the military, then as a government civilian supporting the military, and now as a dedicated chapter coordinator helping veterans recover from PTSD and TBI symptoms through the power of therapeutic kayak fishing. She’s given so much, and continues to do so. We honor Dawn’s commitment and ask you to consider doing the same by donating to Heroes on the Water. Veterans have given so much in service. Now it’s our turn to serve!

Heroes on the Water is a 501(c)3 that is dedicated to serving our U.S. military veterans, active-duty, law enforcement, first responders and their families. Want to support our chapters? Join the Honor Circle today! 

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