LAND O' LAKES, Fla. — A lifelong drive to give back - that's what Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano III said led him to join the Army at 18 years old.

"I wanted to, more than anything, give back, and the Army was one thing I always had in mind to do," said Tuimalealiifano.

What You Need To Know

  • Army veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano became paralyzed from the shoulders down after being injured during a deployment in Afghanistan in 2007 

  • Tuimalealiifano said he isolated himself at home for four years after his injury

  • He said fellow service members helped pull him out of isolation by introducing him to adaptive sports and the Warrior Games

  • Tuimalealiifano was part of the Team USA wheelchair rugby team to win gold at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando

Born in American Samoa, his family moved to Hawaii when he was young.

The Army was also a way to provide. By 2007, 28-year-old Tuimalealiifano was married and the father of three young children. He was nearing the end of his third deployment - this time, in Afghanistan - when he was thrown from a humvee.

"I broke my neck from C5, C6, and I was paralyzed from the shoulders down," he said. "I did what most of us do and went to a dark place, and I sat there. I sat in that, in those four walls in Hawaii, my home in Kapolei, for about four years."

Tuimalealiifano, who said physical activity had always been a way of life for him, describes the time after his injury as a nightmare.

"The only thing that gets us going and keeps us going is a mission and a vision, something greater than ourselves. It's the reason why we joined the service - to accomplish and do much more," Tuimalealiifano said. "And now, we are alone and isolated and there is no mission."

He said it was fellow service members from the U.S. Special Operations Command's MASP team (military adaptive sports program) who helped pull him out of that by introducing him to adaptive sports and the Warrior Games

"They still showed that there are adaptive sports to be played. There's still a world still to see and people still to be spoken to, stories that can help mend things," Tuimalealiifano said.

His sport of choice: wheelchair rugby.

"It's the fastest-growing adaptive sport there is, and I think that's a lot to do with the impact and hard hitting. It's a fast sport. It's an amazing sport," he said. 

Tuimalealiifano said he and his family moved to Tampa Bay in 2015. That's also when he got connected with Semper Fi & America's Fund, a non-profit that provides financial help to veterans, service members, and their families dealing with major injuries and illnesses. It helped Tuimalealiifano get a special wheelchair designed for adaptive sports.  

"There's a lot of things that they've helped us out with. There's a lot of stuff that they work outside of the box of what the VA can or cannot provide, which they do amazing. But the Fund comes in when covering down on equipment like these rehabbing equipment, which helps me get strengthened and back into the game," Tuimalealiifano said, motioning to pieces of equipment in his living room.

He became the first person with the tetraplegia form of paralysis to compete in the Invictus Games held in Orlando in 2016 as part of the wheelchair rugby team. That year, Team USA beat Denmark to take home the gold.

"We were able to take gold from the Brits and enjoyed every bit of it," Tuimalealiifano said, referring to the previous games' champs.

Tuimalealiifano said medical issues and an injury have kept him out of the game for three years. He's working to recover, and said his message to others facing struggle is that there's always hope and there's always help.

"The mission is now far more difficult than the others," he said. "It's because you don't have, you know - your spirit's been tested, your soul has been challenged, your body has been disabled. And now, what can you do with that?"