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Retiring Wounded Warrior Continues to Serve His Military Community

Image of U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Blake Conley and family. U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Blake Conley enjoys some family time at Disney World while competing as a Navy wounded warrior at the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games in August. Learn how he uses his own experience as a wounded warrior to help others. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Blake Conley

Blake Conley enlisted in the U.S. Navy—even though his dad and granddad were U.S. Army men—at 18 years old, feeling he was not mature enough to enroll in college just yet and eager to travel the world for some life experience.

Despite getting an academic scholarship for college, the Columbus, Ohio native was excited to enlist for a career in a technological field that would allow him to travel and be stationed at beach locations.

Twenty-one years later, his interests became a reality and resulted in a successful career culminating at the rank of U.S. Navy chief petty officer. "It's been great for me," he said. "I wanted to join the Navy and I enjoy serving other people. But I also enjoyed all the benefits I've gotten out of it, including getting to see the world and becoming a more responsible adult."

The combination of a career-ending cancer diagnosis and an innate calling to serve led him on a path where he can stay connected to the military community and continue to help service members as a non-medical case manager with the Navy Wounded Warrior program.

After a career as a surface sonar technician, Conley had planned to medically retire in early 2023.

Headaches Become More

As a sonar technician, a typical day at the "office" for him meant being at sea, monitoring on sonar for submerged objects or vehicles from the surface of a ship—destroyers or cruisers—and occasionally, in a submarine.

"Sonar is basically a machine that detects when other ships are in the vicinity that are trying not to be seen," he clarified. "So, it's sound navigation and our main goal with sonar is to find submarines."

He had originally planned to retire at 20 years, but life had other plans for him.

In 2019, the senior sailor was 17 years into his Navy career when he was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain tumor lodged in the frontal lobe of his brain. He had just received his last orders for his twilight tour.

That year, he had noticed the migraine headaches that had plagued him since his 20's "getting a little bit worse," he said

What used to be a monthly or bimonthly occurrence became more frequent, stronger, and came with other symptoms.

"In July of 2019, I had 15,” he said. "And I was starting to see different symptoms with them, like the aura that I would typically see on the right side of my vision started moving to the left side. They were getting stronger, and my medicine wasn't working as well."

His command master chief recommended he seek more specialized care and his primary care manager ordered he get an MRI. One day after getting the scan in August, he got a call saying it revealed a tumor.

"When somebody tells you that you have a large mass in your brain, and that they've already told neurosurgery, my first thought was this must be really serious," he recalled. "Like, I might not have much time left and I need to go home and talk to my wife and call my mom."

Within the next month, in October of that year, he underwent surgery to remove the mass.

"They actually took four square inches out of my left frontal lobe, and then I did radiation and chemo after that," he said.

While Conley's medical team at Tripler Army Medical Center in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, removed the tumor, the process resulted in some memory loss.

"The way my neuro-oncologist explained it is I had a highway system and "all of a sudden, we took out a whole bunch of it, so your brain is going to send signals," wondering where that area is," he said.

He explained that sometimes he has trouble thinking of words.

"I can be a little bit more forgetful than I used to be," he said. "I also still have the problem with migraines."

To count on family support and help alleviate the weight of his convalescence care on his wife, Lexy, and two small children, John Jackson and Emma Rose, Conley asked to be transferred to the Washington D.C. area, where his wife has family and also where he could continue his care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Today, he's considered to be under surveillance, which means he gets frequent checkups, including an MRI every four months, for monitoring.

"You're not invincible, right? And you need to enjoy every day you get with your kids, every day you get with your family, your wife," he said. "Even if you're having a crappy day, you got to find some way to find some positivity in it."

Conley participating in the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games competition Conley participated in the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games competition, held at Walt Disney World Resort from Aug/ 19-28. He competed in air pistol, discus, shotput, and wheelchair rugby for the Navy. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Blake Conley

Wounded Warrior

Having completed chemotherapy in February of 2021, Conley began working for the Navy Wounded Warrior program at WRNMMC, in Bethesda, Maryland.

As a non-medical case manager, "I interview potential wounded warriors," he explained. "I also do case management, so I help them with their transition and help guide them through the whole process of going through the med [medical] board, and then the physical evaluation board."

He said he's also "there" as a guide and mentor for his sailors "in case anything bad happens with their finances, their ID badges, or anything non-medical that I can do to make their life as smooth as possible, so they can focus on getting better.

At the same time, Conley himself is a wounded warrior.

"I have a non-medical care manager; I have a recovery care coordinator as well, which is the higher-level care support," he said. "It's a different world once you go into the medical world," he said.

Being able to support others now—while he still needs and receives support himself— is a full-circle experience for Conley.

"One of the great things about being a wounded warrior is we get to interact with the other warriors," he said. "It's nice to be able to talk to somebody that's also going through the same kind of thing you are. It's really good peer-to-peer support."

He explained the program provides all types of support for transitioning service members. For example, he recently attended a networking event, "just to help our sailors get ready for transitioning."

This is valuable, because "some sailors, like me, have never really applied for a job in our life," he said. "I joined the Navy right after high school, and I'm 39, and I've been in the whole time."

In addition, his personal experience means he can connect at a deeper level and provide a more "personal" type of support and empathy perspective for what they may be going through.

Welcoming the Next Chapter

"It's really exciting that it's coming to the end," he said. "I've enjoyed my time in the Navy, and I got to go to multiple different countries and had multiple different experiences around the United States that I never would have had without the Navy."

"At the same time, he knows he will miss it.

"I'm going to miss the camaraderie that I've had with all my shipmates throughout my career," he said. "But I'm excited to continue to work with the military and veteran community, to get them excited for programs like the Military Adaptive Sports."

In addition, he said he realizes "there were so many people that have been there for me throughout my career and especially throughout me being sick, that I want to pass that along to the next set of people that are going through challenges like that."

He added, "I don't want to be somebody that just took and didn't give back."

The Athlete

Conley doesn't solely support transitioning service members as part of his job. He also competed as an athlete in the 2022 Department of Defense Warrior Games competition, held at Walt Disney World Resort from Aug. 19-28.

"I did the air pistol as well as discus and shotput," he says nonchalantly. "I also did wheelchair rugby, for which we won the silver medal for the Navy Wheelchair Rugby team. It was a great experience."

He said that while at the Warrior Games, people asked him what his motto was.

"I said, every day above grass, we're winning," he said. "Even in a bad day, you got to find the sunshine."

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