Alena Chesser: Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky Teaches Self-Defense for Wheelchair Users
Editor’s Note: Alena Chesser of Jefferson County, Kentucky, the current Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 2016, always wanted to be a police officer. “I got involved in law enforcement when I was young by sitting with my grandfather, Gene Rogers, and listening to his police scanner all the time,” Chesser recalls. “I grew up listening to my grandfather telling me that law enforcement was a great job and how wonderful police officers were because they protected the lives and properties of others.”
Because of my grandfather, I knew I was destined to have a career in law enforcement. To prepare for that career, I enrolled in college. When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, my grandfather was very ill, but he wanted to go to my graduation. When we arrived there, he learned he had to go up two flights of stairs. Granddad said, “Well, I guess I’ll just wait in the car and see you after graduation.” But then he marched up those two flights of steps, although he wasn’t sure he could make it to the top. We were all overjoyed to see him at the graduation. I also have a master’s degree in dispute resolution.
Alena Joined the Sheriff’s Department & the Military After College Graduation
After graduation, I considered working for the court system with dispute and divorce resolutions. However, I took a job with the sheriff’s department to start earning money, and I really enjoyed being a deputy sheriff.
At the same time, I began working as a civilian for the military at Fort Knox.
My job title was Human Barometrics, which included finger printing and taking pictures for ID badges. I was also allowed to go to Germany with the military, using these same skills that I had used at home with a title there of IX (installation control system) coordinator.
Because I knew I wanted to work as some type of police officer and knew that police officers had to know how to protect themselves and others, I started taking taekwondo when I was 8 years old. But to be fair, I really started taking taekwondo because my mother wanted me to be more active.
A lot of my schoolmates were taking taekwondo, and I thought the sport was cool.
However, once I started working for the military, I took different courses in combative training. I started volunteering in MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), a form of combative training that prepares soldiers before they go overseas to go into an urban setting like a house and take down potential threats inside that house with hand-to-hand combat tactics. This type of training was and is used to take down bad guys without using deadly force to enable the military to question the bad guys and gain information that will help the military achieve their missions. This type of training teaches the military how to move in quickly and put a bad guy in a submission hold, without physically hurting him but still being able to control him.
Occasionally, the military would put out a mass email asking for volunteers to help with this training. I decided to volunteer and learn what this type of self-defense was all about. I knew in police work I would need the ability to subdue individuals, who were creating problems, without hurting them. But, until I attended my first session, I didn’t realize how intense this training was. When I saw a group of armed men in full battle gear rush through the door and come after me, all I could do was scream. The troops shot what is called simunition, a modified paint ball round. Our instructors told us, “Your job is to fight back.” But my thought was, “I just don’t want to get hurt.”
As I moved on through the program in the military, I got a job as a deputy sheriff. I’d been through a deputy sheriff training program that taught much of the same tactics. After my first mission training course and getting over the initial shock of seeing troops busting through the door, shooting paint balls at us and taking us down, I decided at the next session I really would fight back against the troops coming into the building where I was supposed to be the bad guy. The more courses I took, the better equipped I was to fight back and not become a victim, and my combat skills became finely tuned.
I worked with the military as a volunteer from 2004 until 2013 at Fort Knox at the MOUT training facility. I liked the fact that I was helping the soldiers who were being prepared for deployment sharpen their skills and become combat ready before they had to face real life situations that we were trying to duplicate at the training center. Also, I enjoyed knowing that the taekwondo skills I had learned when I was 8 years old and the combat training I’d had in the sheriff’s department were enabling me to fight back better to get our troops fine-tuned on hand to hand combat, which one day might save their lives.
Although the troops that crashed into the building were supposed to take me down, my job as a volunteer was to attempt to make their job as difficult as possible. There’s a pure adrenaline rush you get when a soldier who’s over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds comes running straight at you to attempt to take you down. But I knew I could take him down.
One of the funniest things happened when a young Marine came running up to me to try to take me down. I looked him square in the eyes and said, “Are you really sure you want to try this?” The young Marine froze in his tracks. Then, the command sergeant major came over, stepped in front of the Marine and took me down. The most combatants that I ever went up against was three. In other words, three Marines were required to put me down. Then, they would tie me up or duct tape me.
I started working for the sheriff’s department in 2006. I patrolled special events; I was on the honor guard; and I was a member of the rapid response team. The rapid response team deployed to areas that needed extra policing. We were deployed after two hurricanes in Louisiana to help restore order and stop the looting.
So, I was living my dream of protecting and defending, and I loved what I was doing, but all that changed in 2013.
Alena’s New Purpose for Life after SCI
I was having a lot of back pain by 2013, and my legs continued to get weaker and weaker. For a week, I hardly could pick up my legs. One day I was out at Fort Knox doing MOUT training, and I lost bladder control. I assumed I must have a pinched nerve, so I drove myself to the hospital. When I arrived at the University of Louisville Hospital, I was put in a neck brace, and the doctors did a number of tests, including a CAT scan. I was told one of the vertebrae in my back was cracked. They wanted to do one more test – a myelogram – which involved taking spinal fluid out of my back and putting in a dye. After the myelogram, they learned that my T5 and T10 vertebrae were crushed.
After the dye had gotten out of my spinal cord, I was told that I needed a 1-hour surgery. My family was in the waiting room, however, the surgery lasted for 7 hours. The doctors came to the waiting room and told my family that the surgery took longer than they had expected, and I was in recovery. But I couldn’t move my legs or my feet. The surgeon told my family that the area was swollen, but I should be in pretty good shape after 3-4 days in the hospital. When I still couldn’t move my legs or my feet, I went through another round of testing to see if there was any nerve activity.
After having my entire body tested, the doctors discovered there was no nerve activity below my arm pits.
On September 17, 2013, a group of doctors and lawyers came into my hospital room and told us that the surgeon may have cut too deep when he was performing the operation and severed my spinal cord. Once I found out I never would walk again, I was very shocked and upset. However, one of my core beliefs was that everything happened for a reason.
I decided, “Being in a wheelchair is my new normal. Now what am I going to do?” From the hospital I was sent to Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville – the lead center in the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s Neuro Recovery Network. That’s where I learned how to take care of myself. When I came home from rehab, I had to relearn how to become independent and how to adapt to my new life.
The longer I was in my wheelchair, the weaker I felt. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think I could protect myself.
When I went to the grocery store, I’d be anxious, worrying that in my wheelchair, I couldn’t take care of myself if someone tried to hurt me. I hated the idea of not being able to protect myself. As a deputy sheriff, I felt I could handle any situation I might face. But once I was in my wheelchair, I became worried and upset. If I was around loud people, I’d think they might try to hurt me. So, I decided that I needed to start practicing self-defense skills from my wheelchair.
My boyfriend and some of my military friends were willing to help me learn how to defend myself in a wheelchair and how to deal with any threat that I might face. I learned to adapt many of the mixed martial arts skills that I had and apply them to hand-to-hand combat in a wheelchair.
I soon realized that many of the takedowns and the attack and defense skills that I’d learned actually were easier to accomplish from my wheelchair than they were when I could stand.
I learned that putting an attacker in an arm bar was much easier when seated than when standing. I could use the leverage from being in a wheelchair to help facilitate the arm bar. When I realized I still could have the power and control in a threatening situation from a wheelchair that I’d had when I was standing, I felt more in control. I was empowered. I knew I could protect myself anytime I was out in public.
Once I made that discovery, I realized I needed to share what I’d learned with other people in wheelchairs. With all my martial arts training, if I didn’t feel safe out in public, I thought there might be other people in wheelchairs who didn’t feel safe either. Even if they weren’t in fear for their safety, they might need to feel empowered – just knowing they could protect themselves. I moved all the furniture out of my living room. My friend, Thomas, and I took pictures of many of the different moves – grabs, punches and choke holds and how to get out of a choke hold while in a wheelchair – that a person in a wheelchair could use to protect himself.
I started teaching classes on self-defense for people in wheelchairs at different rehab centers, and I have two more classes coming up in the near future. Although many of our students come to their first classes not knowing what to expect, they hope to learn how to defend themselves from attackers.
They learn how to hold an attacker down until the police arrive, so they’re not powerless.
They learn that worrying about their surroundings is okay, but by knowing how to protect themselves, they build a lot of confidence and realize for certain they can defend themselves if danger does approach.
We also teach them how to quickly and easily remove their armrests from their chairs and use those as weapons. Our students gain a tremendous amount of knowledge that they’re not alone in public, and they don’t have to worry about their safety. They’re taking steps to get away from that fear that often occurs when a person is in a wheelchair in public. We usually have seven to 10 people in a class. Often, we’ll have people who aren’t in wheelchairs who come to our classes to learn to defend themselves.
See Alena’s video on adaptive exercises:
To learn more about Alena Chesser, the self-defense courses she teaches and the charity she’s started to raise money for children who need medical equipment, go to www.walkingtowheeling.org, or email Alena at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alena also has some fitness videos she worked with the University of Kentucky on for individuals with disabilities: https://youtu.be/_mv97kI4E58 and you can go to www.facebook.com/2016alenachesser.
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.