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Joey Hooker

Joey Hooker has always been a leader.

It was a trait he learned from his father, a Marine who battled on Korea’s “Frozen Chosin,” and practiced as an all-star defensive end on his high school football team in Shreveport, Louisiana. He later exceled as a leader in Iraq, where he went by “Sergeant Rock” for his tough love ways. When a back injury ended his military career, though, Joey’s days as a leader were seemingly finished.

“I definitely felt alone,” Joey says. “I still had this desire to serve and lead, but nowhere to apply it.”

The military had been Joey’s identity since his football days at Woodlawn High School, the same school that produced future NFL quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson. However, at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, college football wasn’t in his future.

“Being a star came to an abrupt end after high school,” Joey said. “I turned to using drugs and started selling drugs. I finally joined the military to get away from the people I was hanging around.”

The Army gave Joey the discipline he was lacking and he embraced every leadership opportunity that came his way. He was sergeant by the time they began training for deployment to Iraq in April 2003. In spite of their part-time status in the National Guard, Joey wanted to be sure they were as prepared as the active duty soldiers.

“The guys called me Sgt. Rock because I could be hard on them,” Joey says. “We had to buckle down and get it right. No messing around. I didn’t want to go to war with those guys not knowing what to do.”

The hard work paid off when everyone in Joey’s unit returned home, though not without injuries. Four months into his deployment, Joey was standing atop a diesel truck, when he heard an explosion and instinctively jumped to the ground. The drop severely injured his back and neck, but Joey worked through the pain for another four months.

“A whole lot of soldiers have a big ego,” Joey said. “When you get hurt, everybody thinks you’re weak. You have to overcome that.”

Joey missed four flights home so he could be sure the 17 men under his command were safe. Eventually he was forced on a plane and by Thanksgiving 2003 he was back home. But his trials were only beginning. Not only was he recovering physically, but Joey had to heal emotionally from what he had experienced as a part of war.

In Iraq, he once jumped in a ditch to avoid fire and came face-to-face with a dead Iraqi civilian. On the plane ride home, Joey held the hand of a 19-year-old soldier with a piece of shrapnel in his neck. For the entire flight, he kept asking “Why me?” He was dead by the time they landed.

“I dream about those experiences still,” Joey says. “Those were the hardest things to overcome.”

When Joey retired from the Army in October 2008, he was home with wife Paige and son Seth, now a middle-school linebacker following in dad’s footsteps. The leadership role he sorely missed was filled through Wounded Warrior Project, which introduced him to the Peer Mentor program. Today, he spends vacation time mentoring other soldiers, which baffles some of his civilian friends. For Joey, though, it’s fulfilling a natural role.

“Wounded Warrior Project gave me back a sense of brotherhood. I really appreciate that,” Joey says.

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