Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst
Think about your day. What was the most difficult thing you did? Was it walking from your bed to the bathroom sink in the morning? Or pouring yourself a glass of orange juice? We take certain simple things for granted; that’s just human nature.
Our ability to walk, drive a car, retain control of our motor functions and, for the most part, go about our routine all get overlooked as things we simply have. These acts are like power steering or lined paper: boring until you are forced to make do without them.
Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Troha, an intelligence specialist at Coast Guard Cryptologic Unit Texas in San Antonio, does not have the luxury of taking the activities of daily life for granted. But what is remarkable about his story is not the rare genetic disorder that snuck up on him in the middle of his Coast Guard career; instead it is the things he has resolved to do in spite of it.
The first step in understanding Troha’s attitude in the face of the hand he was dealt is to look at where he was before the unfortunate diagnosis.
“I like working with puzzles,” said Troha. “Intelligence analysis is like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, but there are 1,200 pieces and you have to figure out which 200 pieces don’t fit.”
Solve puzzles he did. After transferring into the new intelligence specialist rate in 2008, Troha worked from the U.S. as well as deployed to assist cutters on the front lines of Coast Guard missions. As a student of history (and holder of a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice), he was a perfect fit for the job.
“Human nature, even though it is vast, is not infinite,” Troha said. “You can’t predict exactly what is going to happen in two weeks or a month, but you can predict with pretty good confidence what’s going to happen based on how a certain group of people have reacted to a certain stimuli in the past.”
He took to the work like a fish to water. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find themselves getting a paycheck to work on their passion. Imagine, then, what it must feel like to attain that goal only to have it taken away.
“The first thing that I felt I lost was my identity,” Troha said of receiving his diagnosis. “You do something for so long, whatever that may be, and then you find out you can’t do it anymore.”
The diagnosis left Troha watching certain motor skills slowly degrading, a discovery that was hard to swallow. He admits that in the first few months it was hard to see a silver lining. What Troha did next, though, was decide that a turn of bad luck would not define him.
“I had to go through a lot of different therapies to realize that, ‘Hey, you’re still the same person. You still have your identity; it’s like a speedbump,’” he said of his response.
In his youth, Troha was an accomplished swimmer, even competing while a student at Louisiana State University. As walking became more difficult for him, he saw the potential of getting back in the pool to compete. As part of his treatment in San Antonio, Troha met a benefit of the military that many active service members are not aware exists: the Navy Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor program.
Along with offering a litany of useful resources for Sailors and Coasties going through medical tribulation, they also assist with entry into the Warrior Games.
“Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and watch TV and eat Cheetos all day,” Troha said.
He began putting his muscles to the test again, awakening some of them that were not so used to swimming, by joining the U.S. Masters Swimming program. A Masters athlete is anyone 18 years or older that wants to take lessons and compete with others, a group that includes a wide range of skill.
“Rob is a pretty unique individual; I could tell right away even with his disability that he was a strong swimmer,” said Roy Garcia, a Masters coach and Ironman coach in San Antonio. “He’s still working on coordination issues, and I think from talking with him we’re going to work on becoming more coordinated with the butterfly.”
Coupled with his self-motivated training in the pool, Troha is now working to compete against other disabled service members and veterans in the Warrior Games and is competing as a member of the joint Navy/Coast Guard team in field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming and track events.
Even in the face of so much adversity, he is finding ways to push himself and represent his service.
“I have four kids; they’re not old enough to know what’s going on,” Troha said. “This is a way I can show them that no matter what you’re dealing with, just keep pushing. Life is going to knock you down. What builds character is to get up and keep fighting.”