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Beating the odds: Keesler senior technician perseveres, has fun along the way

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of a series that focuses on an exceptional member of Team Keesler who excels in their job despite the adversities they've faced.)

Sometimes, life is simple.

In April 1978, 16-year-old John Dockens had finished painting his local church with friends and decided to go to the local swimming hole to clean up and enjoy the afternoon, he explained.

Once there, he ended up getting separated from his friends. Venturing out on his own, Dockens encountered a young Airman and his girlfriend enjoying the day together. The couple paused for a moment, and the young lady told the Airman she wanted to watch Dockens dive into the water. It was an unusual request, Dockens thought, since he didn't know these two people.

Looking back on that request all these years later, Dockens thinks it could've been a sign from above, telling him not to take that dive.

Life was about to get much more complicated for him.

The water was deceiving. He dove, and it was shallower than he thought.

"I dove in, hit a sandbar, and broke my neck in two places, severing my spinal cord," he remembers. "I floated up doing the dead man's float, but I didn't panic. I knew right away my neck was broken. It felt like I was only down there for 30 seconds, but sometime later I found out I was down there for about four minutes.

"All I could think about while I was floating there were two things -- how my parents were going to take it, and if I died here, what was crossing over going to be like? Was it going to be painful?"

"Then I heard the girl scream, and the splash of the Airman jumping into the water," Dockens explained. "He pulled me out, and that's when all my friends showed up.  Then they took off on foot to find a house that would let them use a phone to call an ambulance."

His father was an Air Force veteran who retired in the Biloxi, Mississippi area, so Dockens was able to spend two months recovering at Keesler Medical Center, then transferred to a new rehabilitation facility in Delaware where he stayed for another six months.

"My biggest regret to this day is that I never found out who that Airman was," he said. "A few years back I did some research in old newspapers. I don't know if he ever got recognition for saving me. My biggest regret about the whole thing is I wish I could've thanked him."

Despite the traumatic experience of breaking his neck and becoming quadriplegic, Dockens, the 81st Communications Squadron senior client system technician, stayed positive and motivated.

Dockens considers himself "happycap," not handicap - a term that serves as a testament to his determination.

While he was in Delaware recovering from his accident, Dockens worked on his own to finish his school work so he could graduate high school on time with his classmates. In 1986, he earned his bachelor's degree in marketing management, and then a couple years later bought his first computer. He taught himself how to become proficient with hardware and software, and eventually got hired at Keesler in 1995 as a system administrator in the 81st Mission Support Squadron.  He moved to the 81st CS four years ago.

"It's an opportunity for me to show my skills," he said. "It's good to know that I have a product that people need. I didn't want to live on Social Security or Medicaid; I wanted to go out there and make my own money and make my own decisions on what to do with my money."

"I wanted to prove to myself that it doesn't matter if I'm in a chair or not -- if there's a job out there, I can do it," he added.

Dockens isn't just passionate about his job, though. His "happycap" frame of mind applies to everything he does, often helping those around him as well.

"John is comical -- he's enlightening and fun to be around," said Becky Green, 81st Force Support Squadron deputy commander. "If you're in a bad mood, he has a tendency to be able to pick you up."

"He's like the light in a room," she added with a smile.

Green said Dockens is a people person who can connect with anybody. If he goes to the base exchange and one of his friends is working, he'll go to their checkout line, no matter how long it is, just to chat, she said with a laugh.

A so-called "ladies man" by his friends, Dockens' charm and personality shines through to his marriage as well. Twenty-one years his junior, his wife of six years was his primary caregiver before they were married.

"People tell me I'm robbing the cradle, but I tell them she's robbing the grave," he said with a chuckle.

In addition to his outgoing personality, Dockens has a trait that his friends are very quick to point out -- his willingness to help people.

"He has this spirit, the can-do attitude and the willingness to put others first," Green said. "He takes pride and joy in helping people."

Dockens is very active in his church, and does a lot with the kids there, said Lisa Lyons, airman and family readiness center community readiness specialist. Whether he's providing all the food for the cookouts or helping with Sunday lessons, he's always looking for an opportunity to give back.

It doesn't matter if he's solving problems at work or taking his friends out to lunch, Dockens' perseverance and good-naturedness inspires everyone he knows. 

"I never hear him complain," Green said. "He always seems to have a positive outlook."

"If John can do it, anybody should be able to do it," added Lyons. "He should be an inspiration to everyone to never give up."

Dockens is passionate about a lot of things. Some of his favorite hobbies are reading, trying new foods and wines, and soaking up the sun on the beach, Lyons said. Being able to enjoy the simple things, like spending an afternoon on the beach with a good book, is perhaps the most important lesson he has to share, even if life throws a curveball your way, she remarked.

"I've always accepted my disability," Dockens commented. "My advice to anyone, whether they're disabled or not, would be to get on with life -- you're going to have good times and bad times, you never know what's going to happen. Don't let things hold you back."

"Life's too short," he explained. "Tomorrow might be the worst day of your life, but it could also be the best day of your life. I'm just going to be the best I can."