Lying in a hospital bed in Germany, Mike McElhiney wasn't thinking about the arm that got blown off below the elbow or the wound carved out of his chest. He was wishing he were dead.
He worried his wife would leave him, or that strangers would consider him a freak. He cried when he saw himself in the mirror with his first prosthetic. He feared he'd become the Tom Cruise character in "Born on the Fourth of July."
But by the time he got transferred to Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in February 2002, the Green Beret committed to a new mission: to heal before he reunited with his kids, to get strong enough to play ball and swim with them, and to move forward with his life.
He quickly connected with the DAV and attended a sports clinic for disabled veterans. He worked seven years as a trainer for the Minnesota National Guard in Rochester and got a job with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, first as legislative director then as chief of staff, where he helps veterans seek higher education and employment, assists them in navigating the federal bureaucracy for claims and benefits, and works to maintain state veteran cemeteries.
On Saturday, McElhiney was honored for that work with the prestigious Disabled Veteran of the Year award at the Disabled American Veterans convention in Tampa, Fla.
"When you're in Special Forces, you go into an unknown situation, and you have to improvise," said Larry Herke, MDVA commissioner and McElhiney's boss. "He carries himself the same way today. Mike has demonstrated that an injury you get in a wartime situation is not an end to your life and is not going to hold you back. That's what he shows to younger service members: There's life beyond the service."
A new reality
When McElhiney was growing up in Kansas City, a military career was almost assumed. His dad was a Vietnam veteran and a police officer, his grandfather a World War II pilot. He loved "Top Gun" and pretended to be Rambo in the backyard.
When he joined the U.S. Army Special Forces in the mid-1990s, he knew being an elite Green Beret meant he may have to lay down his life for his country. He made peace with that.
So when he saw the first BBC reports of planes flying into the World Trade Center while working with troops in Kazakhstan, he knew he was headed to war.
A father of two, McElhiney assumed he'd never make it home after landing in Afghanistan less than two months later with his team of 12 elite military members and three C.I.A. agents — the first American military team in southern Afghanistan. Kazakh commanders who had fought against the Mujahedeen in the 1980s warned Americans of their ruthlessness.
"We thought we'd get our faces skinned off by al-Qaida," McElhiney said, "but we weren't going to let ourselves be captured alive."
But when he woke up in December 2001 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the American military hospital in Germany, he was consumed by uncertainty. He had no idea how he got there or what would come next. His last memory was looking up at the Afghan sky and a teammate telling him: "You're going home, man."
His team had been with Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the president of Afghanistan, when an errant U.S. bomb fell on them on Dec. 5, 2001. Three American Special Forces soldiers died and dozens more American and Afghan troops were injured.
The blast tore off McElhiney's right arm below the elbow, severely damaged nerves in his left arm and left a deep wound in his chest. He had drug-addled dreams of floating to heaven.
McElhiney had been prepared for death, but not for this.
"As we all came to understand the seriousness of what we were getting into, we talked to ourselves: 'If you die, oh well — we got our reputation to uphold,' " McElhiney said. "But never did we consider, 'What if I lose a leg? What if I go blind? What if I get my face burned off, or lose a limb?' That was never part of any conversation. And that was my new reality."
Recent technological advances have kept battlefield injuries such as McElhiney's from leading to certain death. A study in the journal Military Medicine showed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans used medical services and applied for disability at higher rates than those in previous conflicts. "The effects of the war will linger for years and impact across generations," the report stated.
Wars don't end when troops leave. Military members with amputations and traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues carry those battle scars forever.
And that's where McElhiney found his niche.
"Look at Mike's career and all the things he's influenced the past 20 years," said Stephen "Butch" Whitehead, a combat-disabled Iraq veteran who is adjutant for the DAV Department of Minnesota and served as the group's national commander. "It really shows other veterans with disabilities that there are people who have gone through traumatic stuff but haven't stopped improving themselves and improving things around them."
Mentoring fellow amputees
When McElhiney was still a recent amputee, he met a young soldier who also lost an arm below the elbow. McElhiney had a fancy prosthetic replacement, but the young soldier had only a rudimentary hook.
The soldier was jealous. McElhiney was disgusted.
How, he thought, was there a caste system in the military where a Special Forces guy gets nice things and the grunt doesn't? McElhiney gave the soldier contact information for members of Congress, commanders and the head of prosthetics at Walter Reed and urged him to advocate for himself. He also contacted Walter Reed officials and told them the young soldier deserved better.
That was McElhiney's jumping-off point in veteran advocacy.
"I knew there'd be more casualties, and I knew there needed to be a voice for the voiceless," he said.
He has mentored other amputees. He assures them life goes on. At 50, he remains muscular and confident. Some everyday things are still difficult, such as hammering a nail, opening a water bottle, putting on a belt. But he golfs and fishes. Recently, he biked a 15-mile downhill mountain trail in Colorado.
He wonders if science will advance to the point where limbs can be regrown. He'd love that — not so much for himself, but so that younger soldiers wounded on the battlefield could fully heal and return to action.
"Life is always hard, no matter what, no matter what you're dealt," he said. "I don't know I have any great gift or any inspirational speech. To me, it's simple: Go to work. Have a job — that's better than not having a job. The only limitation to one's self is one's self."
Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647