No one would’ve held it against Master Chief Raina Hockenberry if she took off her anchors and just went home after the events of Aug. 5, 2014.
The personnel specialist was a senior chief halfway through a deployment to Afghanistan, where her mission was to help train the Afghan security forces.
She was with a group of Americans leaving an Afghan military camp in Kabul when a rogue Afghan gunman opened fire on them, wounding the 41-year-old in her tibia, groin and stomach.
The Navy was ready to medically retire her, but Hockenberry couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the Navy.
“I love being a chief,” she said. “Having the privilege to lead sailors every day. I’m so honored to do that.”
Back at Walter Reed medical center during her recovery, she asked for a laptop so she could get back to work.
“My identity was Senior Chief Hockenberry,” she said. “Being in the hospital, you’re a patient and you lose who you are. That laptop was huge. It gave me my identity back. It gave me something to focus on. I was useful again.”
Hockenberry will be honored as the Sailor of the Year at the annual Service Members of the Year Award ceremony in Washington, D.C., on July 10.
She credits junior enlisted service members at Walter Reed for helping her to keep fighting to return to the fleet, even on days when she just wanted to go home and sit on the couch.
“Every time I wanted to quit, there always seemed to be some junior sailor popping in saying, ‘Hey senior, you going to PT?’” Hockenberry recalled.
“And I said, ‘Of course I am!’ Because that’s what we do. What chiefs do.”
Today, she serves on board the Hawaii-based guided-missile cruiser Port Royal. As of mid-June, she was planning to take part, for the second year, in the Warrior Games, an athletic competition that brings wounded, sick, and injured U.S. troops together across a variety of events.
She won eight gold medals and set four swimming records last year. She also traveled to Sydney, Australia, to take part in the Invictus Games.
Being among others who have suffered similar injuries helps her let down the master chief invincibility shield.
“At the end of a 12-hour day on my ship, it doesn’t matter how much my leg is aching and how tired I am,” she said. “I’ll be damned if I limp. (But at the games) after a four-hour bike ride, I have no problem walking real slow. It’s okay.”
These days, she’s happy to be back in the fleet working alongside her shipmates.
“Today, I’m just another sailor,” Hockenberry said. “Granted, I’m a master chief and that’s awesome, but I do drill, I do general quarters, I’m up and down ladder wells. I do what every other sailor does.”
When Hockenberry decided to stay in the Navy, she started actively seeking out a new assignment. “I went shopping,” she recalled, contacting various commands and asking "Would you take me?”
Eventually, the Port Royal’s skipper, Capt. Christopher Budde, brought her on.
While Hockenberry admits she’s not one to glom on to the spotlight, she hopes her story “might help someone that’s sitting in a dark place.”
“On the flip side, it might convince another commanding officer to take a sailor who’s injured,” she said.
Everyone who sustains a life-changing injury needs to find the one thing that will motivate them.
For Hockenberry, that’s been Navy life.
“You’ve got to fight for what you want,” she said. “If you really want it, there’s so many in the Navy who will help you, you just have to ask.”
“And there’s a lot of us, especially senior leaders, who don’t ask.”
“As senior enlisted leaders, we think we’re invincible and untouchable,” she said.
“You don’t have to be perfect. I don’t walk perfect, I sure don’t swim perfect. But that’s okay.”
“I think that was the hardest thing for me to accept.”
Just more than two years after the attack that changed her life, Hockenberry returned to Afghanistan as part of “Operation Proper Exit,” a program that brings wounded troops back to the places where they were injured.
“When you’re medevacked out, you just pick up and leave — there’s no closure,” Hockenberry said. “This gives those injured troops closure.”
Hockenberry was just starting to walk again and her rehab had begun to feel like it would never end by the time she took the trip.
“When you’re in that cycle, you don’t think there’s an end,” she said. “The four gentlemen I went with have all been through the gamut and now have productive lives. It’s just an injury. It’s not your life.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.