Four and a half years after an enemy bullet entered retired Staff Sgt. Travis Dunn’s armpit and severed his spinal cord, the Ranger veteran found himself back in the arena competing for the first time as a member of Team SOCOM during the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida.
Dunn’s story of rehabilitation and recovery does not only belong to himself, but to his “team of teams” surrounding him led by his wife Kelly and their 15-month-old daughter Sadie.
Like so many special operators before him, the native of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s military story began after learning of the Al Qaeda-led terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A sixth grader at the time of the attacks, Dunn remembers clearly the vision for his future.
“I knew from that moment forward, I would join the Army,” Dunn said. “If I was going to go into the Army, I was going to ensure I could fight right away, and that meant enlisting and joining the infantry.”
At Army basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, Dunn earned an Airborne School slot after achieving the top physical fitness score in his platoon. Later, Dunn raised his hand when the drill sergeants asked which of his platoon mates had a contract to attend the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP), the forerunner of the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Ranger Assessment and Selection Program 1 (RASP 1). Only the truth is Dunn did not have a signed RIP contract at the time.
“I learned early on, if you volunteer for something hard in the Army, you’ll get it,” Dunn reported with a grin. He was proven correct. Dunn’s drill sergeants were happy to provide him the opportunity to earn his way into the Ranger regiment.
Dunn tackled the 17-day RIP course head on graduating in January 2009 to earn an assignment to 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Georgia. In August of that year, Dunn would experience a baptism under fire in Kandahar, Afghanistan where he would receive his first Purple Heart medal.
To continue to advance in the ranks of the Ranger regiment, Dunn set his sights on completing Ranger school.
Team SOCOM Army Staff Sgt. Travis Dunn’s family visits him prior to a track race during the 2019 DoD Warrior Games hosted in Tampa, Fla., June 22, 2019. The Warrior Games were established in 2010 to enhance the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded, ill and injured service members and expose them to adaptive sports. The 2019 DoD Warrior Games are comprised of more than 300 service member and veteran athletes representing the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Special Operations Command, and five partner nations. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo)
“I had difficulty with land navigation in two different Ranger school classes,” Dunn said.
When he returned to Savannah without the coveted black and gold Ranger tab the second time, he thought his time in the Ranger regiment was nearing the end. The regiment requires its small unit maneuver leaders to pass the Ranger course or face reassignment to the conventional Army.
“At this point in my career, I had been on three deployments and involved in multiple fire fights,” Dunn said. “The only thing I wanted for myself at that point was to lead Rangers in combat, to be the one they counted on to get the mission done and bring them back from an op.”
Instead of departing the unit, Dunn told his Ranger leadership he desired to go back to Ranger school. To prove his commitment, he reenlisted to go back to Fort Benning and its Ranger school.
In 2011, Dunn and Spc. Kevin Nash, his best friend in his platoon, met up with Nash’s sister Kelley, new to Savannah from her native California. Kelley enrolled as a student at Armstrong State University. They would continue to socialize in group settings until Dunn departed to Ranger school.
In Feb 2012, Dunn passed Ranger school on his third attempt. He returned to 1st Ranger Battalion prepared to lead a Ranger fire team in combat for the fourth time. But, Dunn also had something else on his mind.
In downtime during the deployment, Dunn asked Nash for permission to date Kelley. His question received a rapid, “No”. After a cooling period, Nash had a change of heart and told Dunn, “She is a grown woman, she can make her own decisions.”
Kelley and Dunn would start dating in late 2012, and they would marry almost one year later.
On Dec. 2, 2014, on his seventh deployment in six years of service, Dunn entered a doorway to provide supporting fire to a Ranger element engaging enemy combatants from an objective compound in Nangarhar province. During the engagement, Dunn was shot.
For five days, Dunn was in and out of consciousness as he was transported from Bagram Airfield to Landstuhl, Germany to Walter Reed Military Hospital. When he regained consciousness, Kelley was there.
“The moment I came to and realized the extent of my injuries, I knew that I had to recover for Kelley,” Dunn reported. “She quit college one semester short of graduation to take care of me and did so without a complaint. I owe her everything.”
During an extensive recovery process, the Dunn’s decided that they were not going to allow the Ranger’s paralysis to define them or their family. Dunn continued with rehabilitation in Savannah with the human performance specialists at 1st Ranger Battalion for two years.
“It meant the world to me that the battalion kept me around,” Dunn said.
The Dunns’ next challenge bore a heavy burden on Kelley. For two years the Dunn’s tried fertility procedures to become parents. In June 2017, they found out Kelley was pregnant.
Dunn states, “It was the happiest day of my life.”
Now 15-months old, beautiful Sadie Lee Dunn was in attendance with Kelley watching her father compete in his first Warrior Games. The Ranger tackled archery, track, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby at the annual Paralympic-style event.
“We have great coaches,” Dunn said before the Games began on June. 21. “I’m just hoping not to get my doors blown off.”
To no surprise to anyone that knows Dunn, he put up a fight down the stretch of the 200-meter wheelchair sprint to place second in his heat and followed it up with a second-place heat finish in the 100-meter wheelchair event.
As for basketball, Dunn stated what most know about the athletic ability of the most special operators.
“SOF doesn’t play basketball, we run through walls. Wait until wheelchair rugby,” Dunn said emphatically.
Dunn and his SOCOM teammates are now preparing for the wheelchair rugby competition, a sport more in line with the soft-spoken Ranger’s tenacity and competitive character.
“Like everyone else competing, I’d rather not be here – but I am,” he stated matter-of-factly. “More importantly, my family is here along with all those people that supported Kelley and I along the way. They are here in person or in spirit.”