Johnathan Holsey and Marilyn Ponder are the proud parents of two successful young men, Brandon and Joshua Holsey. The family has faced adversity in many ways, but all four represent inspiring individuals in their own right.
This Wounded Warrior Never Gives Up
In 1992, Johnathan Holsey enlisted in the United States Army. He left for a few years and then reenlisted in 2000.
"I was at a point where I didn't know what I wanted to do in life and which way to go," he says. "I thought I could get a better idea of this by enlisting. As far as I know, I might be the first in my family to have ever been in the military."
Throughout his two total decades as a member of the armed forces, he worked his way up the ranks to become a chief warrant officer.
"I always enjoyed being a soldier. The camaraderie we have and the friendships and relationships we've built are like nothing else. Fellow soldiers have been like family to me, and they've become part of my struggle."
The 44-year-old Holsey is a native of Fairburn, Ga. And now resides in Frederick, Md. Still in the Army, he has been stationed all over the U.S., as well as in Iraq, Belgium and South Korea. He currently works as a human resources technician at Fort Detrich.
Holsey was deployed to Iraq in July 2004. On Nov. 10, 2004, he was with a convoy that was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). Two weeks later at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he had the bottom part of his left leg amputated and was fitted with a prosthetic.
"When you realize that you've experienced a permanent change in your life, you learn that it's just part of who you are and that you aren't going to give up. I remember thinking I wished I could change things, but then I quickly realized that I could still do so many things with a prosthetic leg. You just learn not to give up."
Ponder, the mother of their sons, recalls what it was like to find out about Holsey's circumstances.
"It was quite an experience getting a phone call at 2 a.m. to tell you that your loved one had been injured," Ponder recalls. "So I packed up the kids, and we all went to Washington to see him at the hospital, not knowing what to expect. We really didn't take any clothes or much of anything. I will always be forever grateful to the Wounded Warrior Project and the American Red Cross for their help."
It was Holsey's encouraging outlook that helped everyone get through this challenging time.
"He told the boys that it could be worse and that he'll get through it," she says. "His attitude really motivated all of us. We have become such a competitive family."
He was awarded a Purple Heart, which he proudly displays at his home.
"It means a lot to me, and I never imagined ever getting one," he says. "But some people think it's like an award you earn when in fact I see it as just part of my military service. I don't regret anything about what I did or where I was because it's my job to serve."
He was even featured on a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which chronicled the lives of several military members who had become amputees
"Being in the military has taught me how to be a good person. So, when I meet young soldiers, my goal is to always teach them a little something about being a decent person."
Despite his permanent injury, he is extremely appreciative to remain in the military.
"The Army realized I still had something to give. It's been amazing."
Never letting anything hold him back, Holsey has actually gone running, skiing and snowboarding since his amputation.
Earning a Saint Leo Degree
Holsey attained his bachelor's degree in business administration while attending a few Saint Leo University Education Centers – one at Fort Gillem near Atlanta and the other while stationed at Hunter Army Airstation in Savannah, Ga. He started on his degree in the spring of 2010 with some previous college credit and completed it in 2012.
"Being on post, it was so convenient to take classes at Saint Leo," he recalls. "There were several other military members going there, so we would get study groups together and help each other study for our exams. I could get off work at 5, go right to the library and then head to class after that."
In his view, a business track was an ideal option for his studies.
"With my experience in the military working in HR, I felt like getting a business degree was a pretty good area for me to study, even though I know there are differences between the military and civilian organizations. I just have to consider my civilian career and what I might want to do down the road."
Their two sons have paved their own paths through hard work and persistence.
Brandon, their 28-year-old son, earned a music scholarship to college and has played trumpet and piano. His current job is working as a restaurant management consultant in the Atlanta area.
Their younger son, 23-year-old Joshua, has succeeded on the football field to now play in the NFL as a cornerback for the Washington Redskins.
"When people find out Joshua plays in the NFL, I say to them that I'm just so happy he has a job," his mom, Ponder, confides. "On draft day, we were just thrilled that he was drafted and would be getting a regular paycheck more than anything."
It wasn't an easy road for him, though.
"He had two head coaches in college and multiple defensive coordinators and assistant coaches," Ponder explains. "He really experienced lots of turnover, and he tore his ACL twice."
His dad says he was basically born to be a talented athlete.
"Football was always second nature to him," Holsey says. "He has always been steadfast in what he does and is a perfect example of how hard work pays off."
The parents realize how special it is to have a child involved in a professional game with so few job opportunities.
"So many players aspire to see their names going across the ESPN crawl on the bottom of the screen," Ponder says. "Less than 1% of college football players make it to the NFL."
She adds that the adventure of watching the NFL Draft was "the three most nerve-racking days of my life. It got to be the late rounds, and we were wondering if he'd even get drafted."
His time in the spotlight finally came in the seventh round when he was drafted 235th overall in 2017.
"During the draft, he didn't want to talk to anyone," she recalls. "Every time his phone rang, it got real quiet because we wondered who was on the other end."
The family travels to games when they can, mainly having to fly instead of drive like they did during his college playing days at Auburn University.
A Woman of Strength
Ponder, 44, now resides in Atlanta and is currently enrolled in Saint Leo's DBA program.
"I didn't know anything about Saint Leo until Johnathan was going there and I went to his graduation," she explains. "I was and undergrad student at that point. Then when I finished my master's, I researched several schools that offer a DBA program. I knew Saint Leo was a military-friendly university to active-duty members and veterans, and I liked the core values they had and the fact that it's a faith-based Catholic institution. Plus, while this was an online program, I liked the fact that they have an Education Center in Morrow near where I work."
She says that while the doctoral program has undergone some changes since she started her coursework in April 2017, it has been a very positive experience.
"I really like how the DBA program is structured. It has really made me feel more confident about things. The classes take you right up to your dissertation and really make it feel like an attainable goal."
She admits that taking online classes has been a bit of an adjustment compared to the traditional classroom-based coursework when she attended a regular campus a few days per week while earning her bachelor's and master's degrees.
"It has taken a little time to get used to it," she says. "But we do have collaborative sessions where we get to actually talk to others in our classes. We also did a weeklong residency at University Campus in Florida, which was intense but well worth it. For online classes, I say you have to be disciplined and have excellent time management skills. You can sit down at the computer whenever you want since there's no formal class schedule like on campus."
For the past 15 years, Ponder has worked for a local eye clinic. As a practice administrator, she now oversees the day-to-day operations of three locations, 13 eye specialists and over 100 employees.
"After I finish my DBA, I would like to teach business management to adult learners in college and work as a consultant for different eye care practices."
Holsey says he owes so much to her for what she's done for their family.
"She has been the backbone to allow all of us to do what we've wanted to do," he says. "No matter what challenges we've faced, she's always been there to push us to never give up."
Photo credit: The photograph(s) included in this blog article were provided by Marilyn Ponder and are used with permission.