Larry LaRue

Tacoma veteran paralyzed by flu treatment regains his life — and this weekend, a wife

Chris Wolff was 18 when he watched the twin towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, and he made three telephone calls in succession.

“I called my mother, I called my father, then I called my recruiter,” he said.

Fresh out of a California high school, Wolff joined the Air Force, prepared to die for his country if it came to that. Several times, it could have.

“I served in Kosovo, Germany, North Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan,” said Wolff, a former flight technician with the 62nd Airlift Wing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who lives in Tacoma.

There were combat missions where he took fire, and once the jet in which he was flying barely made it back to the airfield. Those were acceptable risks.

Upon returning home to JBLM in the fall of 2008, Wolff and his wing mates were ordered to have flu treatments — and that is what nearly killed him.

“We got the flu mist, which is a live virus,” Wolff said. “For some reason, that virus attacked my spinal cord. I was told that happened to eight people out of every million.”

What followed is a more personal war than any Wolff previously faced. One morning, nearly three weeks after the flu mist, he awoke in a Madigan Army Medical Center bed, paralyzed from the neck down.

“I was prepared to die in combat. But this? No. I’d never contemplated life like this,” he said.

The prognosis? Wolff said a doctor told him this was going to be his life – that he would not breathe, let alone walk, on his own again.

“That day I started yelling at myself, ‘Move an arm, move a finger, move something.’ ” Wolff said.

Months later, after a transfer to Tacoma General Hospital, his body finally responded.

“It was Feb. 12, 2009, I moved my left arm a quarter inch,” he said.

It was a small gain against too many losses. He realized his military career was over. So was his marriage, which crumbled during his battle with his own body.

He was medically retired from the service, but not declared disabled. That was up to the Veterans Administration.

“I went two years without being paid. The VA system was backlogged, and in the meantime I nearly lost my home,” Wolff said. “Eventually, I got back pay and caught up. The VA ruled I was disabled.”

At one point, Wolff said, he contemplated killing himself.

“All that stopped me was the inability,” he said.

Wolff’s life was marked not by months or years, but by movements wrung from his body.

In 2011, he found the Wounded Warrior Project, and his life was changed. Even the nonprofit group’s logo, the silhouette of one soldier carrying another off the battlefield, inspired him.

“The goal for every one of our warriors is to go from being the one on top — who needs to be carried — to the one doing the carrying,” said Jason Martinez, a senior specialist with the group’s physical health and wellness program.

“For some of our warriors, just getting out of the house again is a victory. For others, it’s running a full marathon. There’s a wide spectrum when you measure progress.”

Wolff found his own yardstick. “I didn’t want to be a burden,” he said.

He and another WWP member, Keith Sekora, bonded during an adaptive sports clinic in Seattle in 2011. From then on, every new event they tried became a competition that deepened their camaraderie.

They “ran” 5-K races, Wolff in his wheelchair, Sekora — a stroke victim — on his adaptive bike. They became teammates in seated volleyball. Last year, they tried downhill skiing.

The events were WWP-sponsored.

“We want to keep them engaged, active. We want them active,” Martinez said. “The goal is to honor them — and empower them.”

The more Wolff did, the more he regained use of his body.

“I learned to climb stairs, to walk with forearm crutches. My last barrier now is my right leg,” he said. “My left is ready to run a marathon.”

He can drive again and, when he got a service dog, Aspen, he lost his fear of going out alone.

The confidence he gained did not stop with athletic competition. In November 2013, he put his photo on and met Kellie, a Tacoma single mom.

They talked on the telephone for hours over several weeks, then had a first date. Wolff invited her to his house and cooked chicken Parmesan.

They’re getting married Saturday (March 7).

His comeback story is chronicled in an episode of a documentary series called “Wounded: The Battle Back Home,” available on Netflix.

“I try things, and I never fail. I may have to find another way, but ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” Wolff said. “My approach is, ‘What’s next?’ I look at living life with the abilities I do have. I want to learn to swim, then get a SCUBA certificate, maybe skydive ... .”