The little box with the Purple Heart inside could have been a coffin for Sgt. David Kendrick.

Knowing his U.S. Army career was dead could have made it so easy for him to surrender.

Now retired, the wounded warrior shared his story of personal triumph during a disability awareness conference at Carlisle Barracks.

His mission Thursday was to inspire his audience and to show people that individuals with disabilities are just as capable as anyone else in leading productive lives.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Military service was everything to Kendrick, a Rochester, N.Y., native. It was his chance to break away from a rough neighborhood with all its poverty, drug dealers and gangs.

Moment of change

Growing up, Kendrick saw the Army ads on TV.

"‘Be all you can be' - I liked the way that sounded," Kendrick said.

He enlisted in 2005 and trained as a cavalry scout. He had a promising career ahead, but all that came to a sudden, violent end on June 17, 2007, when a sniper's bullet tore through his left leg, shattering bone and severing the femoral artery.

Kendrick has been screening people coming through a security checkpoint in Sadr City, Iraq. From the start, there was a feeling of unease. Iraqi police assigned that day to help the Americans were a complete no-show - a sure sign of trouble.

As Kendrick was processing the last person in line, he heard a loud crack before he hit the ground. Fellow soldiers dragged him to cover, where they applied tourniquets to stop the bleeding.

The wound looked so awful that Kendrick had to reassure his buddies that his leg was still attached.

That single moment changed his life forever.

It forced Kendrick out of the Army on a medical discharge and back to the old neighborhood where once again criminals tried to recruit him into their lifestyle. They thought his skills as a combat veteran could translate well into street violence.

They even mocked Kendrick, reminding him, "You are right back here with us."

"That was my rock bottom moment," Kendrick recalled. "I felt the blood I shed for my country was for nothing."

The Army was his life. That life was gone. What was he going to do?

Purple Heart pride

In the months that followed, he underwent surgery 14 times to reconstruct his leg.

Before each operation, the doctors told him they will do their best, but the limb might have to be amputated.

One day, an officer came by with the little box containing his Purple Heart. That was the moment when Kendrick realized his Army career was over and tough times were ahead.

At first, he mentioned having a Purple Heart on his resume. For Kendrick, it was a badge of honor, until he realized that civilian employers were probably discriminating against him because of the stigma some attach to disabled veterans.

Few of the skills he learned in the military were transferable to the civilian workforce. While law enforcement seemed a logical choice, his disability ruled that out.

"I went back to Rochester in the spring of 2010," Kendrick said. "My family and friends were happy I was home, but they did not know how to treat me. They worried about flashbacks or some nightmares."

Kendrick left home an 18-year-old boy but returned a 23-year-old disabled veteran. He had changed into someone they did not understand.

Worse, Kendrick had to swallow his pride and lie to his family. He told them he had somewhere else to go when in reality he had nowhere, so he became homeless by choice.

"My parents did not support my decision to join the Army, but I did it anyway," Kendrick said. "I did not want to hear them say, ‘I told you so.'"

Instead of dealing with his family, Kendrick spent most nights getting drunk at local bars before sleeping in the back seat of his car. Times were desperate until he remembered a face from his past.

‘Ability'

While a patient at an Army hospital, Kendrick met a major general who offered him help if he ever needed it. On a whim, Kendrick contacted the man and his life began to change for the good.

It turned out the officer was affiliated with Ability One, a company that provides jobs to individuals with disabilities through contracts with the federal government. The general helped Kendrick to land a job at a Rochester factory that manufactures spices for the military.

The employer saw Kendrick's natural leadership ability and offered him a position as a products supervisor. Kendrick found himself in charge of 30 employees, all disabled like himself. He obtained his license as a forklift operator and got a two-bedroom apartment.

"For the first time in my life, I am fiscally independent," Kendrick said. "I am proud to have a place to call my own. I am glad to have some options in my life. Ability One has given me a second chance at life."

Ability One was among the service agencies with representatives at the conference. The goal of the event was to build an awareness of the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and what can be done to help them reach their potential.

"When people think of the word ‘disability,' they do not think of the word ‘ability,'" said Joseph Diaz, executive director of Ability One's east region, which covers Washington D.C., the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

Nationwide, Ability One provides jobs to 45,000 individuals with disabilities - about 3,000 of whom are military veterans, Diaz said. While a host of agencies are tasked with helping disabled veterans, many still fall through the cracks because of the bureaucracy and lack of coordination among the different groups.

"A job is a way for a disabled veteran to feel like they're part of a mission again," Diaz said. "David Kendrick has gotten his life back. Now he is touring the U.S. and telling his story as part of a speakers bureau."

‘Inspiring'

Staff Sgt. Joseph Mutaku of the Center for Strategic Leadership was among those who visited the conference.

"To hear him come back and do something with his life is inspiring," Mutaku said of Kendrick.

"Kendrick did not give up even though he faced a lot of challenges," said Rodney Foytik, a reference historian with the Army Heritage and Education Center. "He kept on going. That may be hard for a lot of other veterans to do."

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