Press Briefing by Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Raina Hockenberry
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Raina Hockenberry
STAFF: Good afternoon, everyone. Master Chief Raina Hockenberry has been in the Navy for 18 years now and currently is serving aboard a ship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Raina is a proud Wounded Warrior, as well as a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient.
She was shot five times while deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, twice in the leg, it shattered her tibia, once in the groin and twice in the stomach. She wore a metal brace on her leg for over a year, and during that year she went through a grueling process known as limb salvage, attempting to re-grow six inches of her missing tibia.
During that year, and while sitting at Walter Reed Hospital, she decided that simply healing was not enough. During a visit by her leadership, she asked for and received a command-sponsored laptop so she could continue working.
Additionally, while still healing and with the brace on her leg, she returned to Afghanistan as part of Operation Proper Exit. Here, she believed that a service member's involvement in the welcoming would help keep them grounded and remind them of the harsh realities of serving in a combat zone.
Today, she's been cleared for full sea duty and is proudly serving aboard the mighty USS Port Royal CG 73. Recently, she won eight gold medals and set four games record in swimming at this month's Warrior Games in Colorado Springs.
In four months, she will represent her service and country in the Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia. Additionally, Raina was recently selected to be a Master Chief Petty Officer.
NAVY MASTER CHIEF PETTY OFFICER RAINA HOCKENBERRY: Hi. So I was asked to just kind of come and I guess give a quick review of kind of what's happened since my injury and then if you all have any questions, I'd be more than glad to answer them. So as Master Chief said, in 2014 I was serving in Afghanistan and one of our Afghan soldiers that we were training turned his weapon on us.
So there was 14 of us total that were injured. I was med-evac’d to Walter Reed and I didn't realize I was hurt. I'm lying in the bed and the doctor's trying to talk to me about the -- my prognosis, and I -- I remember looking at him and saying so I get to go back in two weeks?
And he -- he says no, I think you're a little bit more hurt than that. I'm like OK, so a month? So it was a big push to return. As Master Chief mentioned, you know during my time in the hospital, that laptop was huge to me.
Being in the military, it's part of who we are, it's embedded in us. So that laptop made me stop being a patient and it put the power of being a senior chief back in my identity. So it was a big driving force. There was a lot of rehab, a lot of recovery and fighting.
People tended to assume that I would be medically retired and they -- I could understand why, but I just didn't see it. So through the help of a lot of people and a lot of opportunities, I managed to come back and now, as Master Chief said, I'm back on a ship, hopefully showing that an injury or an illness doesn't stop you from continuing, that there's a lot of opportunities for us to be just as good and in some cases better.
So we just keep going.
Q: My name's Matthew Cox. I'm from military.com, and thanks for coming today.
So I wanted to go back to when you were wounded. So can you tell us -- so you were there in Afghanistan, what were you doing in Afghanistan at the time, what's your job and tell -- can you just walk us through, you know, what happened?
I mean what happened right before -- what were you doing before -- before this incident happened? And do you -- do you -- you know, do you know what unfolded?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Yes, so initially I went to Afghanistan to serve as the J1 for the Ministry of Interior and assist with some HR advising to the Afghans. While there, I also served as gender -- or as guardian angel for the gender advisor.
So we did a lot of things working with orphanages, women programs, training the ANA, border patrol and whatnot. Midway through my tour, my billet went away because Resolute Support was past. So then I interviewed for the senior enlisted leader position for Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, where we work with infrastructure, budgeting, building military power, building military facilities and whatnot.
The day of the incident, we were actually visiting -- visiting the Marshal Fahim Training Facility. It's a -- used to be called the Afghan Defense University. It's basically a major boot camp for Afghan soldiers and one of the soldiers -- we stopped for our last minute briefing -- our last briefing of the day and one of the Afghan soldiers just opened fire through a window.
I do remember everything that day. He just -- he just started shooting. I'll be honest with you, he just opened fire. Later on we learned that you know there was a lot of speculation as to why. Some felt -- I'm sure you can read it, some felt this, some felt that, but blue on green attacks happen a lot more than people know.
And that's basically what it came down to.
Q: And how far -- you said from a window, how far away is it?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: I think they said it was 50 feet, maybe? He was fairly close, he was close to all of us.
Q: OK, and just one -- so you said you woke up and you know you talked to the doctors and said when do I get out of here. Do you remember, you know, getting hit? You know, you were shot five times, do you remember any of that or -- or can you just tell us ...
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: I do. I -- like I said, I remember everything that day. A lot of has been printed about that day. Today though, if we could focus on the resiliency and the Wounded Warrior Games and the -- and the project and everything, because that is in the past.
I don't -- I understand the past is part of my present, but that's not who I am or what I'm about anymore, it's now where I'm going and where we are taking sailors in the military. Thank you, though.
Q: You were talking about how it was kind of assumed that you would be medically retired. And I'm wondering what the process is like for you to -- when you face that possibility, but obviously wanted to stay in the military.
Can you talk about that?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: I was severely injured to the point where a medical retirement made sense. But I can't imagine not serving in the military. It's -- it's part of who we are and my fellow brothers and sisters in the military, we all believe in what we do.
And to not stand with them is something I couldn't imagine. So thankfully a lot of people believed that I could come back and they -- a lot of rehab, a lot of hours, five, six hours of PT a day, occupational therapy, giving me time to heal. I'm -- I'm not different than most, but I'm stubborn, and people believe that if given a chance, somebody like me can surf, so I don't know how to explain it.
All the stars lines up. People were willing to give me a shot, I kept going, I kept getting better, I got the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan in 2016, which was huge. I -- I showed that I could function in a combat zone.
I got to pass my physical fitness assessment, so hitting those wickets, people encouraging me to hit those wickets and helping me hit those wickets just basically slowed me to come back to full duty.
Q: And you went back to a combat zone, so you didn't have to change your MOS in any way.
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: No, so returning to the combat zone in 2016 was not a military deployment. There's a program called Operation Proper Exit by the Troops First Foundation, they take service members who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan back.
So when they approached me, they had never had a female. So they asked if I would like to go and we did, we went back and we visited I want to say 11 different FOBs, talked to the troops and the soldiers.
We actually went back to my old FOB, I got to see my old office, and it was a good message because I remember them coming through when I was stationed in Afghanistan and seeing these -- these soldiers come through and it is a reality like Master Chief said that, hey, we are in a combat zone, we are -- we need to keep our head on a swivel, we need to keep working, because a lot of young troops go out there and they're like I just want a piece of the actions and this is a harsh reality of what that action could be.
But they're amazing, we have young men and women out there serving, willing to do whatever it takes to keep other countries safe. So it -- it was a very humbling experience.
Q: Which sports did you get involved in and how did -- how did you make that -- that bridge from being injured and going into the (inaudible) and then bringing home eight medals and (inaudible)?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So I competed in rowing, powerlifting, swimming and cycling. The swimming and cycling was -- physically it was easier because I had done it before, I had done triathlons and I was very active prior to -- but I didn't want to do them because it was a reminder of what I used to be able to do.
So the first time I got in the pool it took me three times as long to get to the end, and I don't think a pool ever looked as far as it did that day. But I got there. I think it doesn't matter how you get there or how long it takes you as long as you get there.
Power lifting and rowing was new to me, so I -- I love it because it's something challenging and I think that's something military -- especially our enlisted troops do, we look for challenges, ways to -- to push ourselves, so it was a -- a way to be back in arms doing what every other sailor, soldier, Airmen, Coastie, Marine does.
So it was -- it was -- it was a good time.
Q: You mentioned rowing. Did you do -- did you row on a A, did you scull, did you --
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: It was a erg, it was a erg.
Q: OK, and you were doing just timed events?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Yes, so there's two events for the erg, there's a minute sprint and again a minute never seemed so long as one year on a rowing machine and then there's a four minute endurance, which I think is a way to punish everybody.
Q: I did want to ask you -- I mean it seems like you can do everything, you know -- you know now despite your injuries. But do you have any lingering effects?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: I do. So you can always do anything, it's just you might do it funny. So I definitely do things funny. I lost a lot of muscle in my right leg so from the knee down I wear a device called a “VADR” (phon.), I don't know what that stands for, sorry.
But it assists me in walking, it takes the pressure off my tibia -- off my tibia and puts in on my patella so I can walk with it. I have what's called a non-union that fuses -- the two pieces of my tibia aren't fused.
But again, through some very imaginative people who create some amazing things at Walter Reed, I'm -- I'm back up. I -- sometimes I walk a little funny, especially at the end of the day, but I think any woman that wears high heels would agree with me.
At the end of the day, we all walk a little funny. So there are some, there are some.
Q: How long were you at Walter Reed?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So I did a split at Walter Reed, I was there in patient for almost four months and then I did intensive outpatient for five, I returned to Hawaii, to my command, and did six months of outpatient at Tripler and then I returned to Walter Reed for another nine to remove the “x-fix” and to see what my next steps were.
Q: Another nine months?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Yes, ma'am.
Q: Go ahead, you go ahead.
Q: (Inaudible) I think there were 14 others injured, do you -- did you remain in touch with them throughout the process, if so, you know, and during the recovery process.
You know, if so like how -- how -- was it healthy to be able to talk to people that kind of experienced the same thing? Are you still in touch with them?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Absolutely; so not all 14, because we were all different units there, but those of us that were a part of CSTC-A, we do keep in touch to this day. In fact, just earlier today I was visiting with one of them because he's out here.
I think it is good to be around people that have experienced things. We -- humor can get you through anything, and I think we have a little wicked sense of humor, so we make comments to ourselves and -- and to each other that other people that haven't experienced it wouldn't understand.
But it is -- it's -- it's something that will bond you together forever. So we do, we keep in contact. The day of the event we text each other, we check in with each other. Not only combat, but I think it's a military thing.
We don't leave anyone behind, so we look after each other and we make sure that we're -- we're doing OK. And even on the days that we're not, we keep each other going. It's -- it's just part of it.
Q: Can you go through -- you -- you won these medals, could you just -- so go through, you know, what you got the medals in?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Absolutely, for cycling it was road trials and time trials.
Q: And so you got gold medals for those, you got --
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Yes.
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So for the time trial and the road trials I got gold in my classification and then swimming it was the 50 meter backstroke, 50 meter freestyle, 50 meter breast stroke and 100 meter freestyle.
I got gold in my classification for those and I also set warrior game records for those. And then rowing as well in the 100 -- or I'm sorry, in the one minute and the four minute in my classification I got gold (inaudible) medal in power lifting.
Q: Three out of nine (inaudible).
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: But in Invictus I plan on medaling in Invictus and power lifting.
Q: And what's your -- so what's your job on (inaudible)?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So my official title is I'm the personnel and administrator officer, but the great thing about being on a ship is you are everything and anything. So firefighting, anti-terrorism, medical, you name it, we're it.
Q: (off mic)
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: I'm not at this time because I've been traveling so much for the games. I just reported to my ship in November, so - but, yes. Once I circle back and things tend to settle down, I'll jump on training teams.
Q: So what are your plans then beyond? I mean, do you plan to stay in for as long as you can? I mean, what is your plans for the future?
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So I plan on doing Invictus and then Invictus and I'd like to focus back on my ship. They've given me such a great opportunity not only willing to take somebody like me because I can be very scary to people.
You know, something different. People tend to shy away from something different, so the fact that my command was willing to take somebody coming off of an injury, I owe them a lot. And then they've allowed me to do warrior games, and now they're allowing me to do Invictus. So once Invictus is all over, I just want to focus back on the ship and serving the Navy and being the master chief that they think I can be.
I know that sounds idealistic, but again, it's what we do. It's just what we do. We serve as much as we can. As far as how long I plan, I think the best way to say is I plan on serving until I'm no longer effective. Whether that's three years or four years or 10, as long as I can make a difference everyday and I know I'm making a difference every day and I can serve my country in an operational function, I'm going to stick around.
STAFF: There's no questions? (inaudible)
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: So one of the reasons I agreed to do this is that, you know, there's a stigma and I'm not sure - I'm sure you've researched there's a stigma to the term wounded warrior. I shied away from that term for the longest time because I didn't want people to think that I wasn't as much as any other sailor.
Now, I've learned to embrace it because the sailors - and I'm just going to go with sailors, not to discount the other services, but I'm part of team Navy - the sailors that I was in Colorado with are some amazing people. They have lived through stuff that some people don't think that they come out the other end and they do.
So the fact that they consider me one of them is such an honor that I don't shy away from that title. But one of the big messages I'm trying to bring across is that just because we've been injured and hurt, we can still give to the military. And if commanding officers out there and those in higher ranks are willing to give us a shot, I guarantee you're going to get your bang for your buck because we are people that are fighting to be there.
We want to be there. It's, again, it's a part of who we are. So just because we're different or scratch and dent athletes as my coach called me, we are out there just the same as everybody else. So give us a chance. You could be pleasantly surprised.
STAFF: Thank you very much.
STAFF: Thank you.
STAFF: Thank you for coming today.
STAFF: Thank you.
CHIEF HOCKENBERRY: Sorry, I'm not very interesting.