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HAVERHILL, Mass. (AP) — Nicole Catanzaro didn't have much of a family life when she was placed in foster care while in high school.
When she joined the Army National Guard, she found what she'd been missing.
"The Army was like the family I never had," she said.
Still later, after being thrown from the machine gun turret of a Humvee while serving in Iraq, she formed more important relationships while recovering in a military hospital. Those relationships set her on her path for the future.
Catanzaro, 25, will graduate from Northern Essex Community College on May 16 with honors and an associate's degree in engineering science. She will transfer to UMass Lowell to further study engineering and hopes to use the education for a career designing prosthetics— the same kind of devices that many of the people she bonded with in the hospital were wearing while she was recovering from her own injuries.
After graduating from Haverhill High School in 2007, Catanzaro could not wait to turn 18 and join the military. This had been her dream since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, when tragedy hit America and something patriotic stirred inside of her.
Because she completed two years in the high school's Jr. ROTC program, Catanzaro was able to enlist in 2008 as a private first class.
In the beginning, she was assigned to repairing trucks, but because of her exceptional marksmanship skills, she was re-assigned as a gunner for a convoy security team in Iraq in 2010. She was one of two women in a platoon of about 45 soldiers.
"We were transporting military, civilians and equipment between the Turkish border and Kuwait," said Catanzaro, who is now a sergeant.
Six months into her tour of duty, she was thrown from her machine gun turret at the top of a Humvee when the vehicle rolled over for reasons she said have still not been explained to her by the military.
"I was in and out of consciousness and bleeding from a laceration on my forehead that ran along my left eye," she said.
Catanzaro was transferred to a base in Iraq, where doctors stitched her wounds, then to a hospital in Germany, where she was in an induced coma for a week. She had suffered a traumatic brain injury, dislocated hip, and fractured lower vertebrae, as well as hearing and vision loss. Her left side was paralyzed for an extended period of time and she spent more than a year as a patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"I had to learn to walk again and I lost some of my memory, including of the accident and some of my past, where there are gaps," she said.
While rehabilitating at Walter Reed, she grew close to military men and women who had lost limbs and were fitted with prosthetic devices.
"If you get to know some of the girls and guys, you'll realize that most of them have a great attitude," she said. "It was inspiring to me that there are people who are stronger than their injuries and will find a way to overcome things that others could never imagine happening."
This experience motivated Catanzaro to attend Northern Essex Community College to get a nursing degree, but a math professor saw another strength and convinced her to switch to engineering science.
She said she's always been mechanically inclined, but thought that nursing was the path to her goal of designing prosthetics. Her professor changed her mind.
"When I was a kid, I loved taking things apart and putting them back together," Catanzaro said.
Recently, when a Northern Essex graduate recently visited his alma mater to recruit for his company, ConforMIS in Bedford, Catanzaro landed a job that will forward her to her goals.
As a full-time CAD specialist, her job is converting MRIs to 3D models of people's knees for the company that specializes in creating customized knees for knee replacements.
She's also attending UMass Lowell part time, and was recently named an Honors College student, which offers enhanced learning experiences.
Catanzaro hopes to design her own line of prosthetics someday, and feels that she understands the needs of those who have lost limbs.
"If I never got injured," she said, "I never would have gotten into this field."
SMALL BUT STRONG
As a member of the National Guard, the diminutive Nicole Catanzaro, who stands 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds, trains members of the military in the use of weapons.
Some of them weigh as much as she does.
They include the M2 .50-caliber machine gun, which weighs 121 pounds; the Mk 19 grenade launcher, 143 pounds; the M240B machine gun, 22.3 pounds; and the M249 light machine gun, which weighs 7.5 pounds unloaded and 22 pounds loaded.
"I am a subject matter expert on these weapons," Catanzaro said. "The 240 was my favorite because it was easier to care for and maintain. I found it faster to fix a jam than on a .50-caliber. I could have been on the 50-cal, but that was chosen for lead and rear gun truck. I was placed in the middle of the convoy that didn't require as much gun support. It was easier with the 240 because my truck was always weaving in and out of the convoy."
Information from: Eagle Tribune (North Andover, Mass.), http://www.eagletribune.com
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