One year ago, Airman Ryan Blackwell was just weeks away from medically retiring from the Navy.
A training injury from several years earlier had proven to be debilitating, and Blackwell’s date for leaving military service was fast-approaching.
But everything changed Dec. 6, 2019, when a terrorist launched a deadly attack at NAS Pensacola.
On that day, Blackwell shielded a colleague from the shooter’s gunfire and saved her life. His own body absorbed six bullets.
Blackwell was one of eight people, both in the military and civilians, who were injured in the shooting, which also claimed the lives of three young sailors.
For Blackwell, a year of recovery followed the shooting. For four months, he used a colostomy bag after one of the bullets tore into his abdomen. Nerve damage in his arm led to chronic pain with a prognosis that could last a lifetime.
But today, Blackwell is not bitter.
One year later:NAS Pensacola heals from tragedy, stands resilient a year after terrorist attack
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Timeline:NAS Pensacola attack: A minute by minute timeline of the 15 minutes that changed Pensacola
In fact, in the days leading to the one-year anniversary of the attack, he has found a way to turn one of his darkest moments into a positive.
“It wasn’t every day rainbows and sunshine, but I’ve turned a negative to a positive,” he told the News Journal.
Exactly one year to the day of the attack, Blackwell is celebrating the grand opening of his new business, a gym and sports center in Gulf Breeze called WELL Trained, where he will offer physical fitness training to all ages and teach the sport of wrestling to children.
The two-time North Carolina high school state wrestling champion and college athlete said the attack changed what he wants in life.
Blackwell now seeks to instill values like discipline and diligence — qualities he credits with his survival — into student athletes. He wants to be a coach and mentor. He wants to find his positive.
‘Babe, there has been a shooting on base. I need you to call my family.’
Blackwell, 28, of Cape Carteret, North Carolina, enlisted in the Navy in 2017 on a Warrior Challenge Program contract, meaning he was flown to California immediately after boot camp to begin special forces training.
But his time in the military didn’t go exactly as planned, and he suffered two training-related injuries in the same year.
The first was a drowning. Blackwell technically died during a training exercise in 2017 in Pacific Ocean and was resuscitated back to life. Later that same year, he shattered his wrist, requiring reconstructive surgery of four bones and the removal of a fifth.
“When they fused my wrist, it made it so my right wrist didn’t work anymore, which made a disqualifying factor for the military,” he said.
While he waited for medical retirement, he was placed in a desk job at NAS Pensacola.
“I got stashed in there when I was going through all my medical stuff, basically doing glorified babysitting for international students,” Blackwell said. “They would study, and I would help them transition into our environment and culture.”
Every Friday morning, international students from Saudi Arabia mustered at Blackwell’s office, and that’s exactly what happened on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.
That morning, Blackwell saw the shooter walk down a hallway by his office’s open door.
“I don’t know he was the shooter yet, and he looked in,” Blackwell said. “The way that that day happened has been burned into my brain. He gave me a smile — just a smile, a cold smile.”
Five minutes passed before Blackwell heard the first gunshot. He and his two Navy colleagues who were in the small office stood up.
“That’s when the gunshots start really going off boom–boom–boom–boom–boom,” he recalled. “That’s when we started to hear some commotion, guys fighting for their life. And the guys who are no longer here — screaming, yelling, just pleading different things — that was the commotion.”
He instructed his colleagues to close the glass door and shut off the lights and the TV. He told his female colleague who had taken cover behind him to call 911.
“I knew it was it coming,” he said.
The gunman appeared at the door, shot at the glass and struck Blackwell in the arm.
“As I dropped my phone, I rotated counterclockwise and covered her with my body,” he said of his colleague. “I used my body as a wall and ate five more rounds before falling to my side.”
Two bullets went into Blackwell’s back and more hit him in the right arm, abdomen, hip and left foot. When he went to rip an air conditioning unit out of a window to escape, he realized his right arm was paralyzed.
“I was calm. I thought through it and used my left arm instead,” Blackwell said. “I remember that so well. I was so calm.”
Blackwell and his male colleague, who had been shot in the leg, and his female colleague, who was struck in the ankle, scrambled outside through a window.
That’s when Blackwell called his wife.
“He said, ‘Babe, there has been a shooting on base. I need you to call my family. I love you and tell them I love them,'” said Ryan’s wife, Carly Blackwell.
At first, she thought her husband was joking.
“I was like, ‘Ryan. What do you need? I’m getting ready for work,'” she recalled. “And then he said, ‘There has been a shooting on base. I’m trying to get to the hospital’ and hung up.”
The couple’s home was close to the base, and when Carly Blackwell heard the first of what would become an endless stream of sirens, she realized her husband had been serious.
She called her in-laws and fell her to knees in tears.
‘It was fight or flight, and I remembered I was 100% fight.’
While being hurried to the hospital by Escambia County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Blackwell noticed that blood from another shooting victim’s leg was rushing onto the floorboard of the SUV. He gave up his tourniquet to the other man.
Later, he received a personal letter from Defense Secretary Mark Esper conveying personal thanks for his “heroic and selfless” actions, along with a handwritten note from the woman he protected.
“Thank you so much for shielding me from those bullets,” the note read. “That was truly selfless of you for saving my life.”
In the months that followed the shooting, Blackwell endured through multiple surgeries, wearing the colostomy bag for four months and coping with median nerve palsy in his right arm.
“It’s like if you ever hit your funny bone, except on the other side of your hand, and the feeling is constant, every day, 24 hours,” he said. “It hurts, but I’ve had a year of just living with it and have learned to cope.”
For months, he could not move without help from his wife, which gave him plenty of time to think about what had happened and what would come next in his life.
“It was fight or flight, and I remembered I was 100% fight,” he recalled. “I was 100% comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because I thought of my wrestling. I was well trained.”
Blackwell decided to open a gym where he could coach wrestling, teach children the values of discipline, patience and determination and train them well, which is what led to the name of the business.
“The message behind WELL Trained is being well trained in all aspects of life,” he said. “So it’s not just that guys come here to wrestle, they are learning life skills that are going to make them well trained in life. It’s using the sport of wrestling as an avenue for them to get those skills.”
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Glassman recently met Blackwell through the local veterans community and said he has been highly impressed by the gym. He called Blackwell “a true asset to our community” and lauded him for his genuine care for children and a work ethic.
“He is going to make better humans, better adults, better teenagers, better kids,” said Glassman, co-founder of America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors, an organization where he works with struggling veterans.
He said the WELL Trained gym has the potential to benefit not only children, but the entire Gulf Breeze community.
“When I come across a veteran who is really depressed, over utilizing medications, I can say, ‘Look, your kids are located in driving distance of WELL Trained Ryan Blackwell’s gym,” Glassman said. “Let’s go take your kids and go meet Ryan, feel that atmosphere. Those kids love the time that they’re engaged in this training.”
These days, Blackwell can be heard yelling instructions over the sounds of skipping ropes nearly every weekday night.
“He has a new perspective on life,” his wife said. “He has always looked at the bright side of things and was a very humble human being, and now that this happened, I feel like those qualities are just tenfold.”
WELL Trained is a new gym and fitness center offering wrestling classes, general physical fitness instruction and athletic facilities. It is located at 3496 Gulf Breeze Parkway in Gulf Breeze. For more information, visit welltrainedelite.com, email [email protected] or call 850-733-6736.
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8680.