When she entered the Infantry Assaultman Leaders Course at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Infantry Training Battalion (ITB) at Camp Geiger, N.C., in March 2015, Jenna Bisone didn’t realize it was the beginning of the end of her time in her beloved Corps.
However, it was not the end of the camaraderie. A career-ending injury eventually led her to compete in the 2016 Department of Defense Warrior Games, a Paralympic-type event for wounded, ill and injured Service members, where she connected once again with fellow Marines and faced brand-new challenges.
Infantry training throughout U.S. military history had previously been reserved for men only. However, the Marines had decided to open up the training to women as a test run. Bisone, an Oceanside, Calif., native, was in one of the last companies with female Marines to go through the ITB.
“I was one of the guinea pigs who went through the infantry courses to see if they wanted to allow females into the infantry,” Bisone said. “When I went through Charlie Company at ITB, our weapons split consisted of machine gunners, mortarmen, and assaultmen. We had females graduate in all of them.”
Shortly before completing the course, Bisone suffered two breaks in her spinal cord that left her with back and leg problems, severely impairing her ability to function or walk normally.
But with the same tenacity for which the Marines are famous, she pushed on and completed two 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) ruck marches within the last five days of the grueling course.
“Of course I didn’t want to say ‘Hey, my back hurts,’ because you know everyone else’s back hurts – we’re all carrying the same amount of weight,” said Bisone.
That last week was bittersweet, however, as it ended in triumph and pain. She graduated the course, but her symptoms had worsened during the last ruck march.
“I went to Marine Corps Engineering School [MCES] without saying anything,” Bisone said. “I trained with them, but it got to the point that my legs were weak; they were dragging. I had nerve damage. I was like ‘OK, maybe I should go see someone; stop letting my pride get in the way.’
“The command at MCES recognized that I was actually injured,” Bisone said. “They didn’t dampen my morale, because it was already injured by the fact that I was probably going to get out of the Marine Corps, and that was not my plan.”
The MCES command allowed her to put in a packet for Wounded Warrior Regiment where she would have a chance to heal.
She ended up being diagnosed with Bilateral Pars Defect, bulging discs, degeneration, arthritis, and sciatica, in addition to the breaks in her spine.
“At Wounded Warrior Regiment, there was always someone to talk to, they’re always like ‘Hey, let’s try this sport; let’s see if we can strengthen you back to where you want to be,’” Bisone said. “They took care of me, and I think that’s the best adaptive rehabilitation – actually having that family there that’s just like, ‘What do you need?’”
During her time at the Wounded Warrior Regiment, she found out about the Marine Corps Trials for people who wanted to compete in the 2016 DoD Warrior Games and decided to give it a try. It turned out to be a beneficial move.
“I don’t think since I’ve been retired I’ve felt this happy,” Bisone said. “It’s awesome. It’s not really about winning, it’s kind of more about the camaraderie. You’ve got your Marines next to you. You’re meeting new people from all over, like the U.K. teams, the Air Force teams, the Army teams and the Navy teams. So you’re constantly hanging out and talking to people and doing what you love.”
Bisone ended up earning the silver medal in the open Standing Rifle competition and the gold medal in the 59-meter Mixed Freestyle swimming competition. She said she urges other like-injured Service members to try out for the DoD Warrior Games next year.
“If you love any of these sports, just do it,” she said. “What can you lose? You make friends; you get to go to new places. I think it’s just wonderful.”
Story by Sgt. Brandon Rizzo