Erin Schaefer has always felt most like himself behind the wheel of a truck.
“I’ve always had what a lot of people say is the trucker’s blood,” he said. “I like to get out and drive and live on the open road. All my life I’ve just loved to drive.”
He spent a decade in the Army doing just that. Then one IED blast damaged his legs so badly that they had to be amputated.
After spending years rehabbing and learning to drive with prosthetics, Schaefer is now close to reaching his long-time goal of getting his commercial driver’s license and becoming a professional truck driver.
Schaefer, 42, was born in South Dakota but raised primarily in Everett, Wash. He joined the Army in 1999 and rose to the rank of sergeant.
In April 2010, Schaefer was on a re-supply mission with the 101st Airborne Division during his fourth deployment in Afghanistan. He was riding as a passenger in a semi-truck that was part of a larger convoy. The rear vehicle broke down, forcing the entire convoy to stop and hitch parts from that vehicle onto Schaefer’s truck. He said that after the convoy got going again, his truck went “about the length of a football field."
Then the IED detonated.
His initial surgery was conducted at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. He was then flown to Germany, and once coming out of an induced coma, he was transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center in Rockville, Md. Finally, Schaefer ended up at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, where he received his first pair of prosthetic legs in July 2010.
Schaefer spent a good part of the next decade exercising and working with physical therapists to regain lower-body mobility. He got into hand-cycling and learned how to bowl on his new legs. He came out the other side with good health and spirits — but getting to that point wasn’t particularly fun.
“I tried to be positive in the beginning,” Schaefer said. “I know there were still expectations or goals I wanted to do but wasn’t quite sure how to get back into working. I’ve worked my whole life. Some things worked out, some things didn’t.”
After medically retiring from the military, he and his family — which includes his wife and four kids, who now range in age from 17 to 23 — moved to Portland, Ore. He worked various jobs there, like a volunteer gig taking veterans to doctors’ appointments and a job at an airport. Schaefer even enrolled in community college but found that “college wasn’t quite the avenue” for him.
One day, he saw an ad for the Truck Driving Institute and decided to enroll. Schaefer had to jump through plenty of hoops, including getting a skills performance waiver from the Department of Transportation.
Now, he’s one test away from earning his commercial driver’s license, or CDL. That’s also currently being held up by a few forms he needs to get signed by his VA doctor. Schaefer described the constant red tape he’s faced as “frustrating,” but he’s learned to “roll with the punches.”
“I’ve come to try to take it one day at a time, accept what it is, just like in the military,” he said. “Deal with things when they come up.”
Schaefer, who has “always dreamt of doing long-haul, going coast to coast” as a truck driver, wants his story to serve as an inspiration for anyone who may feel broken or useless.
“I want them to know that it may seem daunting and kind of frustrating, but if you have your mind and heart set on a goal don’t give up,” Schaefer said. “Reach out, keep researching. Accomplish whatever’s in your mind and heart.”