Michael J. Lewis
June 15, 2010
Filed under News
Do not tell John W. Quinn he has a disability. For that matter, do not tell Quinn he is unable to do something. He will not only prove you wrong, but he will also challenge you.
Quinn has cerebral palsy. Flaccid ataxic cerebral palsy, or mixed-mode, to be exact. His physical symptoms include bowed legs, misaligned hips, and eyes that do not work properly. The obstacles to his leading a normal life are very large and very real. Quinn was born in Detroit in 1962. He was diagnosed at age four.
Yet in 2002 Quinn completed 20 years of honorable service as a U.S. Navy sailor, serving aboard a battleship, in a Navy SEAL command, and on a nuclear aircraft carrier among other ships.
Quinn said his parents did not allow his cerebral palsy to be used as an excuse for anything. Their mandate, he said, was: “Get outside, play, and not come in the house crying. So that’s exactly what I did! I played Nerf football in the street with my brothers and sisters, rode my bike, and even joined the wrestling team.”
Physical therapy can be difficult for anyone. For a child in the early ’70s, it was excruciating. Quinn began his when he was 11.
“Mom took me twice a week for grueling physical therapy sessions with someone I lovingly refer to as ‘the Administrator of Pain,’” Quinn recounted.
“I had to wear heavy orthopedic shoes while other kids raced around in PF Flyers; I wore an eye patch at night to help correct my vision. I just accepted these regimens as normal, thanks in large part to my parents’ strong belief that I was no different from anyone else.”
Quinn recalled his parents being very proud, albeit nervous, when at 18 he decided to serve his country and enlist. Grizzled veterans call today’s Navy boot camp touchy-feely. In 1982, it was tough. And cold.
Quinn and the other young men endured two rigorous, freezing months transitioning from civilian-to-sailor. He credits his company commander and an inner resolve with helping him through this challenging time.
“Like any young sailor, I found boot camp very challenging,” Quinn wrote via email. “But with the help of a great company commander, a determination not to quit, and a bit of luck, I graduated on 16 March 1982.”
Cerebral palsy never exempted Quinn from anything.
“Whether it was physical fitness assessments or breaking out 120-pound bags of gunpowder onboard a battleship, I never asked for, and never received special treatment of any kind,” Quinn said. The pride in his voice was evident: “I was a sailor in every sense of the word, serving on five different ships, with six deployments under my belt.”
Many of Quinn’s friends and former shipmates were contacted for this story. All were enthusiastic about sharing their remembrances of how Quinn unknowingly inspired them, all while being unaware of the challenges he faced climbing ladders onboard ships; fitting his 6-foot, 3-inch frame in a sleeping compartment considered small even for an average-sized sailor; and keeping up with the physically and psychologically demanding environment that is the United States Navy.
Retired Navy Captain Chris Jewett, Quinn’s department head while onboard USS Iowa in the late ’80s and early ’90s, calls Quinn the best sailor he came across. “In my 38 years of service,” Jewett said, “John was the hands down best sailor I ever served with, period, exclamation point.”
Former Air Force Sgt. Marla Scanlon was a junior servicemember, out of her “regular Air Force element” while working among senior male Navy and Marine Corps officers onboard Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Fla., in the late ’80s. She remembers Quinn taking her under his wing, providing friendship and mentorship, even while going through personal crises of his own, including the suicide of his brother, unbeknownst to her.
“I was going through a very rough time in my personal life, wrapped up in my own chick drama, yet John still took the time to be a friend to me, listening to my situation–all the while experiencing something himself that I can’t even imagine,” Scanlon said. “He is an amazing man, a good friend. And if anyone has had the pleasure and sheer luck to know him, he has touched their lives. I am so proud to call him my brother.”