Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium has hosted the greatest stars of country music. But last week, a different kind of hero took the stage at the Mother Church.
Nashville resident Ret. Sgt. Stephanie Vazquez, an amputee combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, received an all-terrain wheelchair that will help further her recovery and adjust to life on her new farm in Portland, Tennessee.
“There’s so many places and so many organizations that have been so good to me when I lost everything. God’s really blessed me back with these people that have cared,” Vazquez told Main Street Nashville in an interview.
Vazquez deployed twice to Afghanistan during her nine years of service in the U.S. Army, and she was part of the first female combat engagement team in Bagram. Female soldiers played an important role in security operations, intelligence gathering and interrogations of Afghan women.
“They were necessary because of the cultural and religious differences between the United States and where they were deployed,” said Tom Kilgannon, president of Freedom Alliance, which facilitated the wheelchair donation. “Stephanie did that, and she selected others to train others to do the same thing.”
During her last deployment, Vazquez suffered serious injuries to her foot, leg and spine when a firefight broke out during a patrol. She had to be taken out by medivac.
Despite her injuries, she stayed behind to ensure the transition to her replacement went smoothly.
“Because of a leader that she is, because of the integrity that she has, she said, ‘I’m going to stay behind to make sure that whoever’s coming in to replace me knows how everything runs here, where the supplies are, who can be trusted in the village and who can’t,’ ” Kilgannon said.
Vazquez later underwent 18 surgeries and, ultimately, a below-the-knee amputation of her left leg.
“I lost everything. I lost my job, my career, my house, my husband, my son,” Vazquez said. “I went into this dark, unforgiving place. I really had to grasp that if I didn’t change the way I thought and the way I handled things, things aren’t going to get better.”
Now, after a long recovery, she is preparing to move into her new home on 8.62 acres in Portland, built by Jared Allen’s Homes for Wounded Warriors. Her horse, three dogs and three cats will come with her, and she plans to add pigs, sheep, goats and chickens as well.
“It’s a different atmosphere being in the country,” she says, adding that her driveway is a quarter-mile long. “The wheelchair will help me a lot, mending fences, feeding the animals — it will help tremendously.”
Vazquez looks forward to spending time on the farm with her new granddaughter, who’s now 2 weeks old.
She also enjoys competing with the Nashville Sled Predators sled hockey team, and she hopes her farm will be a kind of haven for some of her junior teammates.
“We have a lot of younger kids playing on the junior team who have to use a walker to walk, or they’re in a wheelchair or were born with no legs,” she says. “My horse and my dogs have been therapeutic in my healing process. I think it would be cool to let them come to a place where they’re not stared at, they’re not talked about by other kids, where they can just come and pet these animals.”
Vazquez co-wrote a song about her recovery experience with songwriter Raquel Cole, which was recorded last week in Nashville.
“What I wanted to do with the song is show people that I’ve been in dark places and bad places,” Vazquez said. “I wanted you guys to know that you’re a blessing to me.”
Freedom Alliance provides support for wounded veterans, including recreation and rehabilitation, scholarships, mortgage-free homes, Christmas gifts and care packages. The organization has provided more than 50 specialty wheelchairs for veterans across the country.