SPEECH: Soldier with amputated leg tells about redeploying 5 times to Iraq
March 4, 2018
Everybody asks me, how did you get to where you are now? Like so many people, my journey started in high school. I was a pretty gifted athlete and had the opportunity to play college football. Then my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. My parents divorced and I had a big decision to make. Do I continue to play football or do the right thing and take
I found myself facing another tough decision, what am I going to do now? I wanted to go to college, but I was on my own now. I'd have to work, so I applied for a few loans and got a job as a sheriff's deputy. I worked the midnight shift and went to school during the day.
Once I graduated, I made another key decision. I enlisted in the military. I come from a long line of military service, and I decided it was something I wanted to do. When I enlisted, it was before the global war on terrorism. I opted to join a special operations unit because I wanted to be with the best. I'm a Type-A personality, always working to be the best, so that's what I did.
Then the war kicked off, and I realized I had signed a blank check to the United States that says, “I will go defend this country, and if this check gets cashed, I may come back missing a leg, I may come back missing my sight, I may not come back at all.” It's sobering, but like so many others, I was willing to do it. Don't forget, we're still an all-volunteer military. I don't care what your beliefs are, but you better support the troops. It was an option for them to enlist, and they're the ones that make it possible for us to be here today.
'I start getting a sense of invincibility'
So the war kicks off, we start deploying, I deploy a couple times, and everything's fine. Things are going so well, in fact, that I start getting a sense of invincibility. That is not a good thing to do in a war zone. No surprise, one day we were ambushed. Two hand grenades landed inside the vehicle I was in, both detonating, and I'm injured. Somehow I got out of the vehicle and joined the gun fight where I got shot. The gun fight was so intense that they could not fly the helicopters in to get us. We had to wait for the trucks. I remember the grenades going off in the vehicle, I remember the gun fight and getting shot, but once I was in the truck, I blacked out.
The next thing I remember is this doctor taping a lollipop on my finger, and I'm wondering why he is taping a lollipop to my finger. Well, it wasn't a lollipop, it was fentanyl. Fentanyl is a rapid relief opioid that is about a hundred times stronger than morphine. In about two and a half minutes, I'm seeing little pink unicorns flying and bunnies and green ducks, and I'm feeling no pain.
Now, I need to explain something before I go on. It is 2005, and I'm in the Middle East. Trust me, it is hot over there, 127 degrees. Under Armor had just come out with this breathable men's underwear. Prior to that, it was all cotton, and cotton's not your friend in the desert because it doesn't breathe. I'd
So back to my story. When they got us to the combat hospital, I'm knocked out on the fentanyl. But I heard the story later from my boys who told me, “Sir, you were out of it, passed out on the gurney. They rolled you in for surgery and one of the doctors takes a pair of scissors and starts cutting up your pant leg. You popped up on the gurney yelling, 'Hey, whatever you do don't cut my drawers, they cost 40 bucks!' Then you fell back again.” My underwear now hangs in the Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. They're washed, don't worry about it, but they have bullet holes in them. Cool stuff.
After surgery, I laid around for a few days in the hospital and I started getting depressed. Let's face it, my life was going to be different. They had patched me up and were sending me for the next stage of my recovery to an Air Force recovery facility. As they rolled us in, I'm shocked that it's absolutely freezing inside this tent. There are air conditioners every three and a half feet, and it's so cold, people are working wearing polar fleece in the middle of the desert. I'm thinking, this is ridiculous. I'm wounded and drugged and hurting. I've cussed out about half the people coming in there. It was bad.
A sponge bath from the 'wrong' nurse
But then, like a mirage, this beautiful Air Force nurse is heading my way. This was before I was married, by the way. I was still a single guy, and this Air Force nurse is gorgeous and headed my way. She asked me, “How are you doing?” I said, “I'm doing a whole lot better now, how are you?” She answered, “When's the last time you had a bath?” I said, “It's been a long time.” She said, “You need a sponge bath.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” And now I'm sitting there grinning from ear to ear waiting to get a sponge bath from this beautiful woman when this guy walks up to me and he says, “Man, you cussed me and my two buddies out coming in here, now you're grinning from ear to ear, what's going on?” I said, “I'm about to get a sponge bath.” And he says, “Yes, Sir, you are. My name is John and I'm about to give it to you.” I would rather have continued on back to the states stinking than have a man give me a bath, but I was in no condition to argue. I got the bath.
Eventually I got back to the States. They started doing surgeries on me. After surgery, I would be in rehab, then I would have another surgery. It was brutal. I finally got so tired of all of it I said, "Just cut my leg off." I wanted to redeploy, and I couldn't do it like this. To get an amputation, however, I had to get seven doctors to approve, including two civilian doctors. So I went to see the first civilian doctor and told him I wanted to cut my leg off because I wanted to redeploy. He told me he was going to fill out the paperwork and send me home to collect disability. Now, you can guess how I responded to that. I had made a decision to redeploy and I was not going to go home and collect disability.
Finally, I found a surgeon at Walter Reed who understood me and agreed to do the amputation. The recovery was difficult. I had a lot of dark days and setbacks. Being a Type-A personality, I don't listen well. When the therapists wanted me to walk from here to there, I'd insist on twice the distance. I was pushing myself too hard and actually slowing my recovery. But the physical therapists knew how to manage me. They took my leg off, handed me a pair of crutches and walked away. I'll tell you, they got my attention, and after a couple of days I started listening and working with these talented folks.
'Nobody wanted to sign off on an amputee'
I worked with the therapists, I got better, and I asked to be deployed again. They made me go through a whole separate sort of selection process and physical testing before I could deploy again, because nobody wanted to sign off on an amputee. But I did it. I was one of the first special operations soldiers in the United States military to redeploy in a combat zone. Unfortunately, I was feeling pretty cocky again. I'm sorry to tell you, I had lost my humility, and humility is something you should never lose. In fact, I got shot two more times after being an amputee. Cocky doesn't make me the smartest.
Anyway, I'm back in the service and they assigned a new guy to the unit. I didn't even take the time to stop and ask him who he was. We were leaving in two weeks and I figured I'd meet him then. He was my fire support officer, a young lieutenant, West Point grad, the guy that controls all the aircraft that I need very badly when we get into a bad situation. When we got to the Middle East, they told us where we were going on the first mission, and I knew it was going to be bad. I'd been there, been in a lot of gun fights there, and most of the guys in my unit had already been to that location. I sat everybody down and explained that from the time we get off the helicopter to the time we get to the target, we'll be in a gun fight. Then we will be in a gun fight all the way back to the helicopters to get out of there. Sure enough, within eight minutes of getting off the helicopters, we were in a gun fight. Forty-five minutes all the way to the target, a hellacious gun fight.
The new guy I told you about? His job is to run up the stairs, get to the highest point on the top of the building, establish communications with the aircraft, and call in fire from the aircraft to keep the bad guys neutralized. So me, the cocky fella, I decide to run up to the top of the stairs to the rooftop and see if I can't get a charge out of this young lieutenant. I run up and slide in next to him asking if he thinks we will make it out alive. He answered, “Yes,” and I am taken aback. I realized this guy may be cockier than me. I said, “You seem pretty confident about that. There are guys sweating it out downstairs and they've been here before.” He said, “We're going to be fine,” and I said, “Why are you so confident about that?” He said, “Well, if you'd taken the time to stop and talk to me, ask me my name and where I'm from, what I'd have told you is, I'm Billy Graham's grandson. I called my granddaddy before we came out tonight, and he says we're going to be just fine.”
I sat there for a minute and let this process, and I thought, Dear God, this is Billy Graham's grandson, what am I going to do? I looked at him, and I said, “Ed, you are no longer going to be any more than two feet away from me, you understand? Your granddaddy's got some sort of force field around you, and if you're in my area, then I'm in your force field, and I won't get hurt again. Come here, buddy.” To this day, Ed is still serving this country. He's a major, close to being a lieutenant colonel by now. Billy Graham's grandson is still fighting a war for this country. [Note: This was before Billy Graham, a famous Christian evangelist, died in February 2018 at the age of 99.]
'Live every day like it's the last one and the best one'
I share all this to tell you, we all have bad days. Hopefully, however, I have shed a little bit of light on what a bad day actually is and can let you know any bad day is only temporary. They only last as long as you let them. If you start feeling sorry for yourself and making excuses, then you won't be able to do it. But if you realize everything in life happens for a reason, then you can move. You have to live every day like it's the last one and the best one.
People come up to me all the time, especially if I'm in shorts, and ask me if I'm a veteran. When I answer, yes, they often tell me how sorry they are that I lost my leg. But you know how I answer. I say, “Please don't feel sorry for me. Check it out. Every time I buy a pair of socks, it's buy one get one free. I've only got one foot that gets cold. On a rainy day, I just hop on the plastic foot, and the other one doesn't get wet. So don't feel sorry for me, I don't want anything from you, all I want is an opportunity.” The majority of your veterans, we just want a “thank you” every once in a while.
I also share my story with you to talk about teamwork. Teamwork is critical whether you are in the workplace, at church, whenever you are doing something that requires more than one person to get it accomplished. Teamwork is taking care of the person to your right and your left. When I really get good looks is when I'm talking to a professional or collegiate athletic team. I'll pick out the best player in the group and ask them what makes them so good. They tell me they eat right and work out six times a day, etc. and they go on and on. I believe what makes me good is the people around me. So I call them out, “You're not good because you eat right and work out six times a day, you're good because the guy on your right and the guy on your left decide to do their job today. You need to be thanking them more than sitting here patting yourself on the back.” Trust me, I get some pretty crazy looks, because nobody talks to these guys like that. But they need to hear it.
If I can leave you with anything today, know that no matter what, although you may not understand it at the moment, bad things in life happen for a reason. There will be a brighter side, you just have to be the bigger person to find it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and continue on with life. It will make life better for you and for the people around you.
Editor's note: The above is the transcript of a speech by Chad Fleming at the July 2017 Western Conservative Summit. The event was organized by the Colorado Christian University (CCU) in Lakewood, Colorado. The text originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Centennial Review, a monthly publication of CCU's Centennial Institute, and is republished here with permission.
The Centennial Institute website is CentennialCCU.org
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