Wil Wilson entered the U.S. Navy at 17. Twenty-six years later, in May 2003, preceding his fifth wartime deployment, he sustained multiple fractures to both legs and a broken neck aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. After reconstructive surgeries and then a below-the-right knee amputation in December 2007, he emerged with new purpose to compete in the Florida Ironman Triathlon and as a team captain and torch bearer for the first-ever Warrior Games at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Most of all, he found purpose in sharing his new found hope with other wounded warriors.
The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee hired him in 2011 as the first-ever head coach and program manager for the U.S. Navy Wounded Warrior Safe Harbor Adaptive Athletics Program. Later, serving as deputy director for the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge and supported by the Alaska Mountaineering School, he climbed and explored glaciers and Denali, the highest mountain on the North American continent. He later climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.
Wilson completed advanced SCUBA training for disabled military members in Key West, Fla., assisted by the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operation Center. As deputy director, he helped re-establish the diminishing Staghorn Coral reef in the Florida Keys.
Team USA selected him to compete in the 2017 Invictus Games, which Great Britain’s Prince Harry hosted in Toronto, Canada. At age 58 and one of the oldest competitors among all 18 nations, Wilson entered the driving challenge Jaguar/Land Rover sponsored. He also competed in a number of field events, including seated shot put and discus and as a member of the bronze medal-winning seated volleyball team.
He is a graduate of Excelsior College of New York, a certified personal fitness trainer, and instructor for the U.S. Navy’s elite Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School east. He also competed as a member of a combined forces Team USA at the 2019 U.S. National Volleyball Championships.
Wilson enjoys a wide variety of hunting, fishing and climbing near his home in Tennessee, where he resides with his family. His latest venture is an on-going quest to summit the highest point in each of the 50 United States. Now a distinguished 32-year Navy veteran and as an explosives and firearms specialist, he continues to live by his favorite motto: never give up, never surrender.
Of his speech to students, faculty, and guests at Wingo Elementary School on Veterans Day 2019, Wilson said, “I was trying to convey positivity, the fact that no matter what situation you’re in, you have to stay positive. Everything in the military has an acronym. So, I wondered what acronym I could create to inspire others. I decided to take the word ‘hope’ and I broke it down: ‘Hard work Overcomes Painful Events.’
“You can live weeks without food and days without water, but you’re not going to last five minutes if you lose hope. That’s your most precious gift,” he said. Wilson now finds hope in his speaking and similar work. “Absolutely,” he said, “losing my leg was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It introduced me to an element that I had never thought of before. Who would ever think, ‘Oh, I’m going to lose a limb?’ But, when it happens, your entire world changes. Your family dynamic changes. Had it not been for my wife and children, I would not have made it through this far.”
Wilson says his experience gives him credibility when he visits a soldier or sailor who has lost a limb in military service. “When I walk into the room, I tell that kid I’ve been there. I’ve done that. You can get through it. It’s not going to be fun. It’s not going to be easy, but on the other side of that curtain lies hope. You can be a better person (by growing from this experience). You’re the same kid they rolled into that operating room.”
So, why does Wilson now climb mountains and dive beneath the sea? “I need to prove to Wil Wilson that I am the same person they rolled into that operating room. What I found is that being a master chief, I already knew the system. I could help those families. I can answer those questions they don’t even know to ask. That’s why I lost my leg. I finally came to terms with it. Why me? That’s why… because now you’re here to help others. I’ve always been an athlete and finding out about the Paralympics finally opened my world back up. I said take that leg off and let me live again.”
Wingo Elementary School held a special program on Veterans Day 2019. Pictured here, from left, (back row) are guest speaker U.S. Navy Master Chief Wil Wilson, Mary Ann Wilson, teacher and program organizer Debbie Samples, U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Rocky Shapla, and principal Scott Bradley. In front of them are the three sons of Mary Ann Wilson and her husband, Phillip Wilson. They are, from left, Hunter, Randal, and Phillip Jr. Phillip Wilson Sr. currently is serving away from home in the military. His sons wore his shirts to honor him.
(photo by Paul Schaumburg, Graves County Schools)