In 2007, Chris Lawrence had been in about his fifth month of deployment in the Al Anabar province of Iraq when an enemy improvised explosive device went off and destroyed the bridge he and his squad of about 14 soldiers were walking over.
“I was at the center of the bridge and the bomb basically went off right underneath my feet,” Lawrence said. “The next thing I remember is waking up at the Navy hospital in Washington, D.C.”
Lawrence’s both legs and his left arm had been shattered, he suffered a myriad of internal wounds and he was left with traumatic brain injury.
“I had no idea what happened,” he said. “The incident wiped out a good chunk of my memory, including a good couple weeks of what had happened in Iraq, moments of my childhood and I have a hard time retaining new information.”
Some doctors were worried he would never be able to walk again. After six months in bed, exhaustive reconstructive surgery and intense physical therapy, Lawrence made the tough decision to amputate his right leg below the knee and face a lifetime of using a prosthetic.
“I told them to amputate because if they tried to heal my leg, it would never be the same,” he said. “They told me I wouldn’t be able to run, I would have to walk with a cane and I wouldn’t be able to be as active. With a prosthetic, it can be physically challenging but I can keep moving.”
Now, more than 10 years after his injury, Lawrence, a Purple Heart recipient, is being honored as the Chula Vista Veteran of the Year for his tenacity as a veteran and his dedication to Chula Vista as a police officer. Lawrence was also the special guest speaker at Southwestern College’s annual Veterans’ Day Ceremony in November.
While Lawrence has a lot to celebrate now, his road to becoming a police officer with a prosthetic leg has been tumultuous. When Lawrence came back to San Diego, where he was initially deployed, he began working with the Wounded Warriors project at the Navy Medical Center in Balboa Park, where he helped create programs and work with other injured young veterans.
“When I was going through rehab, I thought the next best thing to go in the military was law enforcement,” he said.” But I didn’t think I would be able to do it.”
Lawrence began applying to various police departments throughout San Diego and Orange counties. It had been his dream to become a police officer since he was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but he was never hired, despite passing all the physical requirements alongside other able-bodied candidates.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “Instead of quitting, I had to find another way to go.”
Lawrence decided to use his G.I. benefits to enroll as a student veteran into the Southwestern College Police Academy. Lawrence said his education and experience at the Police Academy recharged and re-motivated his dream after suffering so many rejections.
“The Police Academy is taught by officers from National City, Chula Vista and San Diego and when they saw what I could do, it gave me my confidence back,” he said. “What they were teaching was their own real-world experience – things they would learn while actually doing the job they would come back and teach it to us. That’s when I knew I could do it.”
At the Police Academy, Lawrence participated in the exact same physical fitness tests as the other students, but because of his traumatic brain injury, his memory really suffered. He had to read manuals three or four times before exams and take extra notes. That extra effort helped him graduate with honors in the Police Academy.
“Mr. Lawrence demonstrated a strong work ethic and strong leadership skills,” said David Espiritu, Southwestern College Police Academy Director and National City Police Department Captain. “His mental toughness and perseverance allowed him to successfully complete the Police Academy program. The Police Academy training staff is very proud of Mr. Lawrence.”
Lawrence, in fact, was hired before he even finished the academy. His graduation from the Police Academy and his Chula Vista Police Department pinning were on the same day.
“I graduated wearing a Chula Vista Police Department uniform and badge,” Lawrence said. “It became one of the top three most amazing days of my life. Becoming a dad, becoming a Marine and becoming a Chula Vista police officer.”