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Discovering light in the dark: Marine Corps veteran Kenneth Keitt uses fitness to inspire others

Kenneth Keitt 1920

Marine Corps veteran Kenneth Keitt went from being a self-described "machine" to someone who needed help "bathing, dressing, feeding, everything" in an instant.

A few months after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Keitt was involved in a single-car accident near his home in the Poconos in the early morning hours of December 2, 2012. The car ejected Keitt out of the sunroof and rolled on him, severing his spinal cord, rendering him only able to use his elbow and chin to climb up a hill to get back to the highway to look for help. He remembers laying on the shoulder of the road, hoping he wouldn't be hit by oncoming traffic. Keitt doesn't remember being rescued. He blacked out and woke up in the hospital to a room full of distressed faces of family and friends.

The doctor delivered the life-altering news that he was paralyzed.

Good luck trying to tell that to a 22-year-old Marine, who thought a broken back was no different than a broken arm or any other bone.

Reality hit in the hospital when the nurses distributed and fed meals in order from oldest to youngest. By the time they got to Keitt, his meals were always cold. He started doing crunches in the bed and gained enough strength to feed himself before the nurses arrived.

"That made me realize in my head after I got paralyzed that physical strength equaled independence," Keitt said. "Ever since then, I just realized that being physically and mentally strong will help me go further in life."

It took a few months for Keitt to comprehend that his paralyzed state was permanent. Not only did he need help doing all the basics, he and his then-wife, Rai-Lani, were expecting a child, Liam.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Keitt was the only son in a house of eight children raised by a single mother, Yvette. In fourth grade, the Keitts moved to Bushkill, Pennsylvania to escape the pitfalls of city life. Unfortunately, while visiting friends in the Bronx in 2005, a gang of teenagers jumped Keitt and three others. One of Keitt's friends, Christopher Rose, was stabbed and killed for his iPod. The story made national news as Apple's then-CEO Steve Jobs called Rose's father to express his condolences.

That incident inspired Keitt to enlist in the Marine Corps, where he learned about mental toughness and discipline.

Those traits came in handy when Keitt went to a local gym to work his way back into shape after the accident. He went from being a chisled marvel tipping the scales at 200 pounds to a thin, whispy 165 pounds due to a fluid-based diet. When he requested a personal trainer, Keitt was turned away. The gym's management team did not have the resources or wherewithal to aid someone in a wheelchair.

No problem.

Keitt just started creating his own workout routines and posted them online. He has a 30-minute regimen that has garnered more than 85,000 views on YouTube and has a following of more than 15,000 on Instagram. He enrolled at Penn State and earned his bachelor's degree in business in 2019. He started a wellness company for people with disabilities, ParaPer4mance, a digital platform that connects individuals in wheelchairs and with limited mobility to fitness resources. He's since competed in adaptive sports, winning several medals in weightlifting and field events at the 2023 Veteran Wheelchair Games. He has an eye on representing his country at the 2026 Summer Paralympics in Italy.

Keitt mentors others who have suffered injuries dramatically altering their quality of life. He receives testimonials from people who have made tremendous gains in their fitness and independence from following his social media. He serves as a role model for his son, who is now 10 years old and an avid soccer player, and demonstrates to young people that life doesn't end just because of his disposition.

"I'm so passion-driven right now that I don't even have time to think about being depressed," Keitt said. "I'm working with a lot of great people. I get exposed to a lot of great opportunities. How can you even be mad when you have these things?"

Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert Yarnall, who served for 25 years in the Marine Corps and now does consulting and grant writing for military non-profits, including the Robert Irvine Foundation, discovered Keitt on social media. Keitt was wearing a T-shirt with the word disabled, but the dis was crossed out. Keitt's story moved Yarnall, who has a son the same age and is currently serving in the Marine Corps.

Yarnall learned that one area where Keitt found it challenging to navigate was on off-road terrain – gravel trails and the beach, for example. The wheelchair slightly stunted Keitt's love of adventure, the outdoors, and fitness. Yarnall thought Keitt was the perfect candidate to receive an adaptive electric off-road bike through the Robert Irvine Foundation.

"He doesn't just motivate people who are in his situation," Yarnall said. "He motivates a lot of people. When you look at what he's doing and see that he doesn't make excuses, that motivates a whole other realm of people."

The adaptive bikes, crafted by the Bowhead Corporation, are custom-tailored to the individual. Keitt received a model at the Eagles' win over the Cowboys to showcase on the field in front of the nearly 70,000 fans in attendance.

Keitt now has a new avenue open for him to share his enthusiasm, love of life, and inspiring message of perseverance with the world. Keitt's goal is to help integrate people back into society and become the best version of themselves, whatever that looks like for them.