Brussels bombing survivor works to get her Air Force goal back on track
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SAN ANTONIO — Kianni Martinez lifted her pants leg at home to show the scars cascading down her left leg, where flesh was torn and sliced and her bones crushed.
She calls them “shark bites” due to the circular formations on her leg, aligning in a pattern as if left from the maw of a great white. There are more that stretch across her forearm and hand.
The 18-year-old does not hide them.
“While my scars are visible, they don’t define me,” she said.
Her wounds were manmade, from nails and other metal objects pressed tightly into bombs and hidden away in luggage at the Brussels Airport. Terrorists who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group attacked the airport March 22, 2016, with twin bombs, killing 15 and wounding 81 more.
Kianni’s family is in both counts. Her mother, Gail, was killed, and her father and three siblings were seriously wounded.
Mere months from high school graduation, Kianni was ready to begin her Air Force ROTC scholarship at the University of Central Florida in the fall. College would be where Kianni filled out her own life, away from the bases and the steady moves around the world that made her home wherever the Air Force deemed necessary. The fire and the heat of the attack fused the spirit of Kianni’s parents with her own. She is unmistakably split down the middle: strong-willed and mission-oriented like her father, Kato, a career special operations officer; and a compassionate, grounding force of calm like Gail.
Her father, Lt. Col. Kato Martinez, is in command for now. But even he agrees: The future of the family belongs to Kianni.
Three mornings a week, Kianni undergoes physical rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, and on Fridays, she brings her ukulele to play.
Kianni’s fingers ached, first after the attack and then later, when she felt the urge to play in recovery while thick white bandages wrapped her hands. Her initial dexterity exercises were focused on playing -- a sturdy hand on the fretboard, a light touch to strum the chords of “Over the Rainbow” and other songs. Music is central in the Martinez family, she said.
“When I was younger and Momma needed a pick-me-up, she would play Christmas music. It didn’t matter what time of year it was,” she said.
The music also acts as decompression after a week of rehabilitative exercises that include squats and leg lifts to strengthen her left leg. The blast fractured her ankle, tore away bones in her foot and shredded a blood vessel so severely that she needed a graft from her other leg. A divot of flesh was carved out in the fire.
Kianni has endured 16 surgeries on her foot since last March, amid warnings she might never walk the same again. Doctors wanted to amputate her leg soon after the injury but she refused. It would keep her from entering ROTC.
Her limitations, as least for now, go from the ground up. Her left foot has not regained full mobility and torque needed to run. She was fitted with a carbon-fiber brace that extends from her calf and grips her heel tightly, which redistributes weight to reduce impact on her leg. Wearing the brace meant she had to relearn to walk, using a modified toe-first gait.
The possibility of a permanent disability frightened her — but not like a typical teenage stigma that would hinder her ability to fit in with the crowd. She said she was worried it would mean that her path to the Air Force would be cut short before it began.
“My drive to continue the dream of serving in the Air Force was something I could focus on,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
But even with her family’s military background and a bursting ribbon rack from her time in junior ROTC, where she rose to squadron commander, Kianni felt out of place at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, where injured troops come to heal.
“In the beginning I felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. She told her doctors she wanted to leave the hospital, embarrassed at her presence among servicemembers learning to walk after amputations and relearning cognitive functions following traumatic brain injuries. But Kianni’s doctors defused her concerns.
“They told me it’s not fair the war was brought to me. Not many people go through a terrorist attack and come out alive,” she said.
A lifetime of preparation
Kianni can’t remember a time when she was not actively planning for a career in uniform.
By fourth grade, she was a second lieutenant in a cadet force, closely studying rank structure and uniform appearance.
By the time she was about 8 and her father deployed to Iraq, she began connecting news of special operations to his service there. She began to think of her dad’s legacy and what it meant for her own.
“I told him when I was young: For every rank you pin on, I’m going to pin on the same,” Kianni said. “And when you retire I’m going to get one more rank, and then retire.”
Kianni said Gail laughed when she hatched her plan to eclipse her father’s career. Just work hard and you can do it, Gail told her.
The hard work truly began in Kianni’s freshman year in Guam, when she felt unmotivated by advancing through the Navy-centric program. She said Gail suggested she push through. Kianni received high marks and an encouragement from her commander: She would make a fine squadron commander if she kept working hard. She rushed home to tell her father, but other revelations were waiting for her.
He had just received orders for a posting at a NATO installation ramping up personnel as the fight against the Islamic State grew and a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan became increasingly violent.
Kianni arrived her junior year to find an Air Force junior ROTC program with a small group of cadets who had little ambition. Kianni created and launched a drill team there after closely studying videos of the team at John Jay High School in San Antonio — the gold standard, according to Kianni -- and they won awards for their precision.
“We made our name known,” she said with a glimmer of pride from her living room, not far from the gaze of her mother from family photos that line the stairwell.
Living to honor
Gail had long prepared Kianni to help with the family in case she died. She was born with one kidney, which became enlarged in her 30s. Worried that her health problems could spiral, she took young Kianni aside and quietly revealed her parenting secrets throughout the years. Kimo, 13, her brother, responded to roundabout instructions instead of direct talk, Kianni was told. The two young girls, Kailani, 7, and Noelani, 9, need to stand up in the morning, or they’ll just crawl back in bed. Kailani will deviously trick you into answering homework problems for her, so be vigilant. Noelani often drifts into her own world and needs someone to bring her back down to earth once in a while.
“She prepared me for how to help the kids and how to help Daddy,” Kianni said. “But she also kept defying the doctors. She continued to live.”
Living is precisely what brings Kianni guilt. In the aftermath, Kianni was filled with regret that she did not die instead. She was the oldest and learned from her father to be vigilant, she said, and believes she failed to detect suspicious activity in the airport.
Sometimes, the idea of who should have traded places with Gail crosses her mind.
She once told her father the wrong parent had died that day. It was not out of malice, she said, but out of reality: Gail was best prepared to take care of the children. Those feelings have mostly passed.
“I live to honor her,” she said.
An uncertain future
Kianni’s career in the Air Force goes through the University of Central Florida. She chose computer science and robotics as her major to reinforce a cyber career in the Air Force.
But her future as a cadet is unclear. She accepted a full ROTC scholarship before the attack. Now her full participation is on hold until assessments can be made on her physical abilities, she said. She can still take some ROTC classes with her academic scholarship. Until then, her second home is the gym.
Kianni recently visited John Jay High School in San Antonio to speak with junior ROTC cadets about overcoming adversity. Aided by a cane, she spoke about bouncing back from her injuries to continue the mission. Afterward, a female student told Kianni she hoped to be like her once she enters ROTC in college.
In the moment Kianni looked like her father: an impressive ribbon rack, sharp uniform, MARTINEZ proudly worn on a nameplate while commanding attention at the front of a room.
Yet it is her mother’s presence that guided her there. Kato was the hardened special forces officer who performed in the field. Yet Gail was the resilient one.
Kianni is strong like her mother. She is strong like herself.
“You would expect the determination to come from my dad,” she said. “But it’s all from Momma.”