SAN ANTONIO - Joe Shellhart was 17 when he enlisted in the Army. He saw combat right out of basic training.
"It's something the military continually tries to prepare you for, but it's something that you'll never fully understand," Shellhart said.
He rose to the rank of staff sergeant over the course of eight years spent in tours of duty in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
Shellhart said he was 18 years old when he was the victim of an explosive device.
"My vehicle I was in flipped several times," Shellhart said.
Two more incidents involving explosives left him with seizures, traumatic brain injury, a severely damaged spine and difficulty walking.
Shellhart said when he went to Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Fort Lewis for his rehabilitation, he saw the effects a wounded warrior experiences.
"Men there were so depressed, they no longer looked like soldiers," he said.
Shellhart said he wanted to leave the facilities before he felt sorrowful, but it was too late.
"I fell into that deep depression," he said.
While growing up in Oregon, Shellhart said he always excelled at school. But after returning from foreign wars, he said his traumatic brain injury left him unable to concentrate and caused memory problems.
"I was in speech therapy for almost a year," Shellhart said.
Out of the military and after completing some rehabilitation, he excelled as a marketing professional. But he knew he wanted to complete a college degree but didn't know how to overcome his limitations that resulted from the war injuries. That's when he found out about the Wounded Warriors TRACK program.
Mike Owens, who managed Shellhart's cohort of TRACK graduates, spent almost seven years in the Marines and two tours in Iraq. He understands what it's like to return from war with severe injuries.
"On my second tour, I was injured in a seven ton rollover," Owens said. "I lost my right arm and pretty much shattered my legs."
Owens said he went through a period where he thought life as he knew it was over. He sunk into deep depression.
"But then I met other people who were also missing arms," Owens said.
He said the experience of meeting others who went through what he suffered helped him get better.
"Financially, business-wise, what it does to your psyche and your confidence -- everything," Owens said.
He said his bottom line is perhaps what has most helped him relate to TRACK graduates and other men and women returning from Middle East wars who need help.
"That's why it's so wonderful to be in the position that I'm in. Because I can walk them through that experience to give them insights as to how I dealt with it. So they can be successful," said Owens.
TRACK program graduates, like Shellhart, got to walk across the stage at a TRACK luncheon held at the Pearl Brewery in their honor. The cohort of war vets completed their year of education, fitness training and more.
"I interviewed with Rackspace on Tuesday," Shellhart said.
The hope is that the Wounded Warrior graduates can parlay lessons learned at TRACK as a means to overcome obstacles and move on toward fulfilling lives.
"I'm enrolled at University of the Incarnate Word. I'm finishing an undergraduate degree in business. I plan to return for my MBA," Shellhart said.
For Army veteran Joe Shellhart, making it back was one thing. Living happily and prospering is another.
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