First Paralyzed Naval Academy Graduate Makes Wheelchair History

Kevin Hillery Becomes First Paraplegic Graduate of US Naval Academy

Kevin Hillery, age 22, was one of 1,099 graduates to cross the stage at the U.S. Naval Academy. What makes Hillery stand out from the other 1,098 graduates is that he had to wheel himself up the ramp to receive his degree. This act marked the first time in the 158 year history of the U.S. Navy that a paraplegic graduated from the Naval Academy on this, the 100th graduating class of the Naval Academy.

First Wheelchair Naval Academy Graduate Kevin Hillery

Last April, Hillery and two fellow midshipmen, Cullen Smith and James Barker, were biking in the Shenandoah when a storm rolled in. To the horror of Hillery’s friends, a tree crashed down upon him. The pair thought the worst, as Hillery was not breathing. They fashioned a tent from their bikes and blankets, and raced to a nearby home to call for help.

US Naval Academy Kevin Hillery's Spinal Cord Injury

“It was pretty terrifying. He wasn’t breathing when we got to him. Honestly, we thought he was dead,” Smith recalled.

While racing to be by their son’s side, Hillery’s parents received a phone call that changed their lives.

“En route we had a call from his surgeon who actually broke the news to us that it would be unlikely that he would ever walk,” said Frank Hillery, Kevin’s dad.

First Paralyzed Navy Graduate Kevin Hillery

Once they were sure that Hillery was out of danger, his family began encouraging him to continue his dream. With some collective effort by family and friends, the Navy agreed to allow Hillery continue his education in Economics.

Paraplegic Naval Academy Graduate Kevin Hillery

“When they finally told him that he could come back, we were ecstatic. We really were,” said Barker.

First Paraplegic Naval Academy Graduate Kevin Hillery

“They are a rules based organization there was a process that had to occur,” Hillery’s father added. “It will be the proudest moment of my life… to see Kevin throw his cover in the air.”

Parplegic Navy Graduate Kevin Hillery with Leon Panetta

And it was. Hillery crossed the stage, and did a wheelie as he came down the ramp with his degree in hand. While he may not be able to fulfill his dream of becoming a Navy Seal, Hillery is planning on going after his next goal, which includes law school.

Kevin Hillery in Wheelchair with 2012 Graduating Naval Academy Class


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