This U.S. Army veteran, Purple Heart recipient and ESPY award winner shares her inspirational story.
As an American military woman wounded in combat serving on the front lines in Iraq, Danielle L. Green knows the pain and challenges of recovery, reentry and adjusting to new circumstances. Growing up with a difficult family dynamic void of parental attention and material luxuries, Green focused on what she could hope to achieve. Today, she inspires others with an attitude of hope, service and giving back.
The early years
Green grew up on the south side of Chicago, known for mean streets and a large, impoverished landscape. She spent much of her youth living with her grandmother as her single mom struggled with substance abuse.
“I’ve always been somewhat optimistic and hopeful,” Green says. “I was aware of my family situation early on, and I always had the view that things would get better. To be honest, I never had a role model or one particular person who inspired me early in life. I was inspired and motivated by possibilities, dreaming and setting goals. I think my drive was innate because I didn’t have any mentors or someone to look up to at that early age.”
“I realized early on that when things go wrong, it’s important not to give up”
Without a personal role model, Green turned to sports to help create dreams. “I probably gravitated to the University of Notre Dame because it seemed like the football program was always on TV in the mid-’80s, so when you see ‘Touchdown Jesus’ and the Golden Dome, for a kid who’s looking for a way out, it just made sense. That would be my key out: going to school or to the service.”
Green played basketball in high school and participated in the ROTC program. Upon graduation, she achieved one of her childhood dreams, receiving a scholarship to attend Notre Dame, serving as a standout guard for the women’s basketball team from 1995-2000.
The call to serve
After graduation, Green spent two years teaching but continued to think about serving her country.
“As a kid, I always aspired to be a soldier,” Green says. “I was able to earn a scholarship to attend college, but the will or desire to serve my country never left my core. In high school, I had gone to a few (ROTC) camps, so I was familiar with the Army way of living. I decided at the age of 25 to stop what I was doing and do something bigger than myself, although I knew there would be the possibility of war.”
Stationed on a rooftop in Iraq in 2004 as military police assigned to protect the facility, Danielle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in an attack. It permanently severed her left arm and instantly ended her active military duty.
Readjusting & refocusing
“I realized early on that when things go wrong, it’s important not to give up; that’s been a part of my fabric since I was a little girl,” Green says. “So, yes, I lost a limb, but I’m still here. When I was on the rooftop trying to breathe, I remember praying to God, ‘Whatever I’ve done in this lifetime, I apologize; just give me the strength to tell my story.’”
The end of active military service opened up a whole new life of service for Green. Immediately after the grenade attack, she received medical attention at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where she stayed for several months with her late husband while receiving physical and occupational therapy.
“I felt protected there to an extent; they understood the wounded combat veterans they serve, but once I returned home to Chicago, there was an uncertainty because people had never seen wounded female veterans,” Green recalls. “All of our wars up until this war were all about men on the frontline; so I was just trying to figure out how society would view me, trying to handle the stares and the whispers. Thoughts of isolation and avoidance often came across my mind, but I couldn’t live that way. If people have a problem (with my prosthetic arm and hand), then that’s their problem. This is who I am. I worked to develop a new self-identity, and that’s when everything started to click.”
The biggest life adjustment to navigate was learning how to operate as a single-handed individual.
“The first thing I had to work on was being patient with myself,” Green says. “For 27 years I was left-handed, so I couldn’t expect everything to come all at once. I think it is OK to grieve a loss of a limb — that’s part of you. It’s OK to allow yourself to experience the rainbow of emotions, but you don’t want that to turn into dysfunction. The main thing for me was learning it’s OK to ask for help, and it’s OK to say I’m tired and just need a time out. I don’t have time for regrets or self-pity. I have to continue to live my life to the fullest. I just have a mindset that whatever I’m thinking and feeling, whenever it’s negative or painful thoughts, it’s temporary, and it will pass.”
Six months after Green returned home from Iraq, almost one year after the injury, she took a job with the Chicago public schools as a citywide sports coordinator and enrolled in graduate school.
“My self-esteem and confidence started to increase once I accepted that this is who I am, and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,’” Green says. “At some point I realized that I was slowly moving away from the sports arena, and I really wanted to use my degree, and someone turned my attention toward being a readjustment counselor.”
Today, Green serves as a supervising readjustment therapist, providing counseling to veterans and clinical oversight to a small team of clinicians. The role is within a program that is an entity of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I felt like this was the perfect fit for me, being a combat veteran and being able to adjust pretty well,” Green says. “I thought maybe there was a possibility through my experiences I could instill hope in veterans that were struggling to acclimate to civilian life.”
In addition to her work with the VA, Green is putting forward new ways to help veterans.
“There were many organizations that were there for me at the beginning when I felt alone and lost and didn’t know what direction my life was heading,” she shares. “The Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled Sports USA, Achilles Track Club, Impact a Hero — all were impactful! I’m still doing stuff with Wounded Warrior Project and Impact a Hero and have added other great community groups, too, like the Pat Tillman Foundation.”
Along with receiving the Purple Heart, Green also won the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2015 ESPYs. The award is named in the honor of the athlete who died in combat after voluntarily enlisting after 9/11, putting his NFL career on hold.
While Green is currently penning a novel of her life experiences, today her most important job is serving proudly as mother of an 11-month-old son. Green is committed to being his first role model.
“I want to make sure that I’m demonstrating how to be a good, productive citizen,” Green says. “I’d like for my son to be respectful of elders and teachers and be responsible. I think we live in an age where no one wants to take personal responsibility or accountability, and that’s one of the values I want to teach him: You be responsible for your actions and don’t look to excuses. Be educated — nobody can ever take your education from you; it enables you to think and make informed decisions — be selfless, serve your community, serve your country and make a difference in the world.”
As Green seeks to lead her son by example, her commitment to serving only grows.
“There’s nothing glamorous about me,” she says. “I’m just trying to live the American dream.”
Help a veteran during the holidays
There are approximately 19.6 million veterans living in the United States according to the latest census data. In the season of giving back, here are Danielle Green’s top three ways that you can thank a veteran for their service:
Send a note of appreciation & gratitude to overseas military
“It really means a lot. When I was over in Iraq, you kind of move around as if the rest of society forgot about you, because it’s so isolating.”
Host a holiday dinner for veterans that you know personally
“Friends and family can really help a veteran’s recovery and healing process. Be inviting and inclusive to help veterans avoid feeling alone.”
Volunteer with your local VA office or a charity supporting veterans
“When you can be impactful in someone else’s life and make someone else smile, that gives you a warm feeling inside.”
Can’t get enough? Check out 5 on finding inspiration with Danielle Green!
Jodi Marsh is Executive Editor for Healthy Living Made Simple.