Minutes after arriving at his new assignment with a Navy SEAL unit in April 1983, Yeoman John W. Quinn was ordered to line up for physical training (PT) exercises. In the warm California sun, he did pushups, jumping jacks, flutter kicks and other calisthenics. While this may sound ordinary, Quinn was no ordinary sailor.
Quinn was not a Navy SEAL. He was part of the support personnel that handled day-to-day operations. For 3 1/2 years, Quinn lined up every morning for PT and gained the respect of the SEALs—so much so that he was asked to lead PT on his last day there, a great honor.
The thing that no one knew was that Quinn was distinct in an additional way. They all saw him stand, walk and run a bit differently—but they didn't know Quinn had cerebral palsy. It was a secret he kept from the Navy during his 20-year career.
Eight years into retirement, Quinn recently recalled the early days of his naval career. Wanting to serve his country, Quinn reported to a Detroit facility for his physical in November 1980.
"There were 50 guys in this room. We'd been there all day—poked and prodded and herded like cattle from room to room. The last exercise was a duck walk: You get down in a catcher's squat and put your arms out. ... I tried it. My body started quivering, and I fell over. The doctors came over and asked, 'What's wrong with you?' I said, 'Nothing's wrong with me.' So they said, 'Try that again.' I did and fell over."
After being examined and questioned further, Quinn heard words he has not forgotten: "Son, we don't know what's wrong with you, but we don't want someone like you in the Navy. Go home."
Someone Like Me is the name of his inspirational memoir.
Quinn returned home after the physical to face his father. He explained what happened and demonstrated his unsuccessful duck walk. "See, Dad, it was hard," he said. Quinn's father looked at him squarely and said, "Johnny, life is hard. The question is: What are you going to do about it?"
For the next year, without missing a single day, Quinn practiced the duck walk in his basement. "I went back (for the physical). I was the best duck-walker in the entire building. I passed that physical with flying colors." Quinn reported for boot camp in January 1982.
Diagnosed with CP at the age of 4, Quinn has a mild case of the disorder. A handsome and fit man standing 6 foot 3, Quinn doesn't show any outward effects at first glance. He doesn't sit in a wheelchair or walk with a cane. In fact, Quinn has completed a marathon and six half-marathons. Still, CP is something he deals with daily.
"My left foot is 2 1/2 sizes smaller than my right foot. I stand differently; I walk differently; I run differently. I literally have to think about every movement of my body."
Quinn said he also suffers from body pains—but physical pain is the tip of the iceberg. Quinn was "bullied, teased, laughed at and picked on" as a child. As an adult, he suffered from blood poisoning at boot camp, developed a drinking problem, lost his brother to suicide and endured a brutal breakup. As Quinn's commanding officer commented to his mother at boot-camp graduation, "Your boy is one tough SOB; let me tell you. He has a lot of fight in him."
Quinn details his Navy life and personal struggles in his memoir. While Quinn is a first-time writer, the book is well-written and an interesting read. He's received praise from readers around the globe. Visit www.johnwquinn.com for info.
Now 48, Quinn looks back at 12 years of sobriety and a successful Navy career during which he served on two aircraft carriers, on a battleship, on a destroyer and on Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's staff. He was promoted to the second-highest enlisted rank of senior chief petty officer—all with CP.
Quinn's message is inspirational. He speaks to many groups—including children, parents, medical personnel and church members—and stresses what can be done. "Mine is a message of hope, hard work and perseverance. ... The book is (about) showing what is possible."
Quinn will have a book-signing at Gold's Gym, 7315 N. Oracle Road, on Friday, Dec. 10, from 8 to 10 a.m. He signed my book with: "Work hard. Never give up. Dream big!" From a man who battled more than his share of life's difficulties and won, those are words to live by.