We all have bad days. You woke up late for work, one of the kids spilled something on the carpet, the boss is on a tirade, or all the above. Life can certainly be a bear, but what about when life really twists you around, slaps you across the face, and takes a large part of you away, literally? That’s the story of A.B.
“A.B.” is a pseudonym for a retired Army Master Sergeant who spent most of his career in Special Forces. During his third combat tour while returning to the firebase in Afghanistan, his team was ambushed. A.B.’s gun truck struck an IED, likely a double-stack of Russian anti-tank mines, which took one leg and eventually the other. During his recovery he struggled with doing things in life the rest of us take for granted like talking, eating and walking. However, he learned to accept his new reality, and not only did he survive the attack, he now thrives as a husband, father and a mentor to the veteran community.
Below is my interview with him conducted via email between September 15th-18th, 2019. Except for minor editing for grammar and spelling, the text is verbatim. One thing that will strike you is how candid he is about the things he went through during and after the IED. I am honored to know such men and to be able to call him my friend. I hope and pray his words and advice may help one of you out there that may be struggling or hurting.
“Can you describe the immediate moments before and after the IED?”
“It was mid-morning and we were only about 20-30 min from getting back to the firebase. While our guard was not down, we were definitely feeling a little more relaxed because we had just finished traveling through the most dangerous stretch of terrain. I was BS’ing with the Team Sgt (he was TC and I was driving). The biggest decision we should’ve had to make that evening was what the team movie was going to be that night.
I never heard the explosion. All of a sudden everything went black, there was an almost complete absence of sound, and I felt like I was flying through the air. I was confused as to what was going on for a few seconds and then I heard the .50 cal open up from the lead truck. My senses started to comeback, I could start smelling/tasting the dirt, oil, diesel, and smoke in the air. Since I couldn’t see, I was working under the assumption that I was enveloped in smoke. I reached for my M4, but it wasn’t where I kept it in the truck. I tried to get out on my own, but I was pinned by the bent in dashboard (which I didn’t realize at the time). I heard one of my other teammates scurry by and he blurted out, “He’s dead!” I didn’t realize until later he was talking about me.
When I tried to speak for the first time that’s when I started to realize I might be in worse shape than I thought I was. I felt the blood draining from my face and mouth. I went to clear my airway then realized my lower jaw was ripped in half and that I was pulling out my own teeth and other foreign debris. I felt my tongue and realized it was almost cut in half. With this quick medical intervention, I was now understanding why no one could hear or understand me. I grabbed the right side of my jaw that was dangling and pushed it back toward centerline. I grabbed both sides of my jaw and tried to form the most easily understandable words I could make: ‘Help!’, ‘Get me out!’ and ‘Where’s my gun?’”
“What has been your biggest struggle since that day?”
“This one is constantly changing; nothing in this life is static. This blast took everything from me, and I had to relearn many things from scratch. I had to relearn how to eat, speak, shit, walk, and make love to my wife. The first two years the challenge was just regaining independent mobility. After I could walk and drive on my own, I was afraid of being alone. For nearly three years I had a safety net of medical professionals and my wife to help me when I stumbled. Without that safety net I had to relearn confidence.
Then we decided to have kids and that was even a struggle. Due to the nature of my injuries we couldn’t conceive naturally. We had to do in vitro fertilization to have our kids. The first time it didn’t work and that was hard on both of us. The second two times gave us our kids that we have today.
I started hitting the alcohol more and more after the kids were born. My memories of sick, wounded, and dead Afghan kids started messing with my head. I opened up to a few friends about this and got really honest with my wife about this which helped us both get through this patch of parenting.
My current struggle is reminding myself that I’m not an NCO anymore and my kids are not Afghan boogers. The unofficial but widely used method of training personnel in front-line units involves heavy criticism, embarrassing/shaming people amongst their peers, and straight-up threats of bodily harm if you do not do ‘X,Y or Z’ correctly.
I haven’t spanked my kids in over 6 years because the last time I did I left a handprint bruise on their backsides. I grew up with abusive parents and I cut ties with them when I turned 16. I saw in that moment, with that bruise on them, that I was no better than my parents. I didn’t want to be those people. I still struggle to give praise, encouragement, and genuine affection on a daily basis.”
“Were you prescribed opioids for pain? If so, did you experience any negative effects from them?”
“I had opioids prescribed off and on for 2.5 years during my surgery and rehab phases. The only time it was ever an issue was after getting out of the ICU. I didn’t have the mental craving for the drugs, but my body did. I had the chills, sweats, and vomiting for the better part of a week. Since then I’ve had opioids only a handful of times for the normal things people use them for like post dental surgery.”
“What have you learned that helps you cope with the loss of your legs and any emotional trauma?”
“Keep living. It used to bother me when people would stare but I don’t care anymore. I see myself now as a walking ‘memento mori’ [Latin for ‘remember you must die’]. Fortunately, I married a good woman before all this happened and she is still with me. She helped rebuild me and gave me two children. They have only ever known me as an amputee, so this doesn’t bother them. Raising my children has changed a lot in my mentality as to how I interact with people in general. Besides, I’m too busy these days to worry about that much anymore. I assist my wife with her scout troop, both kids are in golf and theater, and my girl does three different dance forms. On top of that we still fit in family vacations twice a year; my kids have seen more of this country before the age of 8 than I did by the time I was 27.”
“What are your recommendations to veterans out there struggling, whether it be from physical trauma, emotional trauma, addiction, etc.?”
“Reach out. Not necessarily to a therapist at first. A family member maybe, but the problem with family is they may or may not understand all the backside baggage with the struggles. A teammate is a good option for a stop gap until an appropriate treatment plan has been developed. I would also ask around the community to see if anyone can give advice. Everyone on this planet is only separated by 6 degrees. Someone has gone through what you’re going through now and can help you navigate it.”
Life didn’t get the last call on how things would turn out for A.B. because he made the conscious decision that he would be in control to the extent he could. Through grit, tenacity, and an unwavering love for his family he gets to live on his own terms. Sure, the Taliban took his legs, but not they or any other person would take his indomitable spirit to live and thrive.
If you’re in a dark place, if you’re hurting, if you feel like life has gotten the best of you, just know that it hasn’t. You have options, you have friends, teammates, family, a pastor, or a counselor to talk to. Always remember this reality: YOU get to make the decisions about how your life turns out. YOU get to decide how you feel about your situation, no matter how dire it may seem. YOU get to write your own story, no one else. Be well and God bless you all.
If you are in crisis and need someone to talk to, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There is someone there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! The hotline has specialists for veterans and active service members.
P.T. Lynch is a veteran of U.S. Army Special Forces and the Marine Corps. He served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and other inhospitable locales around the world. He is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia trying to live a quiet and peaceful life while doing the one thing he loves the most in the world, raising his daughter. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss this post or any other veteran issues.