In the seven days leading up to his retirement from the United States Air Force, what should have been a time characterized by optimism and excitement for the future, Darian Blanks (’17) woke up in a hospital bed, having suffered a terrible crash that would eventually lead to him being told he would never walk again.
Darian was on his motorcycle in 2010 when he was hit by a 19 year-old drunk driver. The traumatic accident left his spine severely injured. Eight months later, he went in for a major surgery, but due to an issue during the procedure, was told he would never regain the use of his legs. Despite the diagnosis, Darian refused to believe the doctor’s words. In fact, he flat out rejected them.
“I knew I was going to find a way to walk again,” Darian recalls. “I grew up in a military and police family who taught me to fight through it. And I wanted to teach my son that no matter how much you struggle, you can fight through the difficulties and come out stronger.”
Because of his relentless optimism, through a total of 16 spinal surgeries and over two years of treatment, Darian did exactly what he said he would: he walked. He walked for his son. He walked for his fellow brothers in arms. He walked because he knew he still had important work left to do. After losing a veteran brother to suicide, Darian realized that he would never be content sitting behind a computer while his brothers were struggling. So he began studying social work at Lewis University.
Over the course of his two years, he would often go to classes in a wheelchair or on crutches, still working through treatment for his spinal injury. And as a single father in the middle of a custody battle for his son, Darian would drive halfway across the state every other weekend – all while working full-time trying to provide for his family. Through it all, he continuously received support from social work professors at Lewis, who spent hours with him in their offices. He would often receive calls from his professors in the evening, checking to see how he was doing.
“My professors made me believe in my own potential,” Darian says. “They were like family to me, and they even told me I could go on to an Ivy League school.”
But when Darian realized that he had run out of his veteran Post-9/11 benefits, while still working to pay for his medical bills and provide for his son, he was unsure of how he would be able to continue his studies. That’s when Lewis awarded him the Trailblazer Scholarship. The scholarship allowed Darian to not only finish his degree, but make an impact at Lewis – and show his son anything is possible.
While at Lewis, Darian became the President of Student Veterans of America as well as the Social Work Association, which he grew from 6 members to over 75 members. He got students exposed to different areas of social work, fundraised for a variety of causes, was active in community outreach, and took students to Springfield for advocacy days.
Darian’s optimism, and the support of his Lewis family, made it possible to fight through the difficulties and come out stronger, just as he was taught by his family. It also paved the way for him to make an impact for fellow veterans and countless individuals struggling with mental health issues.
Darian is now completing his master’s degree in social work at Columbia University in New York, focusing on substance abuse issues, mental health, and policy – which will allow him to have an impact on veterans on a macro scale. He works as a research intern, studying to what degree mental health and substance abuse affects homelessness in previously incarcerated African American women. Darian is also in the process of applying for a number of Ph.D. programs.