Reprint of an article written by Holly Lake,
and photographs by Craig Robertson
April 1, 2007, Sun Media
M aster Cpl. Jody Mitic was on patrol in Afghanistan when his life changed forever. As his foot met the ground for the last time, there was no eerie click, no dramatic pause. There was a flash, a bang and his feet were gone. Now he's on the ...LONG ROAD HOME
I t was 3 a.m. on Jan. 11 when he set out in the cool darkness on an insurgent patrol. As troops did a "soft knock" in an Afghan village, he and three fellow snipers from the Petawawa-based 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment watched for any surprises. After crossing a grape field, the group passed through an opening in the surrounding wall, one by one, covering off the man behind them. As the patrol lead, Mitic was last in line.
W hen he moved ahead, he lost his balance momentarily and tried to steady himself. "I remember stepping forward with my right leg," he says. As his foot met the ground for the last time, there was no eerie click, no dramatic pause as unfolds in the movies when a character realizes the gravity of what's about to happen. Mitic never felt the mine underfoot, never knew what was coming. There was a flash and a bang, like a firecracker, only louder. "I felt a bit of a concussion go over my body. My eyes closed instinctively." He dropped on the spot, his ears and nose full of dirt. Then the pain hit, in excruciating waves.
M itic said, "I realized I must have stepped on something. I freaked out ... I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I was calling (for the others) but they were already working on me to stop the bleeding." Sweating due to shock, he started to shiver. Despite the bone sticking out of his left leg, he kept talking to his guys to keep his mind off the injuries. "My job was to let them help me, stay focused, to control my breathing."
L ying on the ground, all Mitic could think about was how uncomfortable it was, rocks poking into his back. He thinks it's funny he even noticed. What's more, he kept apologizing to his patrol. "I was just so pissed off with myself for messing up the mission," Mitic says. "We always got to where we wanted to go, saw what we wanted to see and got out undetected. Even now, I'm still a little pissed with myself."
M itic was airlifted to Kandahar, where he phoned his family and fiancee. He didn't want them hearing about him in the news. Soon, he had to digest some news himself: His right foot was gone and his left couldn't be saved. Although he'd assumed his right foot was gone, he thought he'd felt his heel touching the ground. "So when (the doctor) told me ... it was still a shock."
M itic has gone over those last steps many times in his mind. They don't stand out; they were as ordinary as the thousands he'd taken in the days before. Only an hour into a 48-hour patrol, he'd been more focused on the steps that lay ahead. As the last guy in line, he wasn't so worried about the ground, but now he wonders how three others walked over the mine safely. Was it the heavy radio he was carrying? Did he step short or long? Or was it because, at 6-foot-4, he was the heaviest? "I think about that all the time -- and they do, too," says Mitic.
W eeks would pass before he walked again. Just two days shy of the two-month anniversary of those final steps, he took his first steps at Toronto's St. John's Rehab Hospital. He'd had the right prosthetic since mid-February, but with his left leg still healing, it was March before doctors cleared it to bear weight. When the left prosthetic arrived March 9, Mitic hauled it on. "I got up and started walking. By the third step, I was just trying to keep from pouring tears out of my face. "I was crying like a little kid. I don't know why, but it hit me hard." He walked the length of the parallel bars in the physiotherapy room, turned around and walked back. "After that, everything was gravy."
A djusting to life without feet has been all about baby steps, but the most challenging one didn't involve walking. "You've got to get used to looking down and not seeing feet," Mitic says. For the longest time he couldn't. When his bandages were changed, he had to look away. When he had visitors, he kept the blankets pulled up to his knees. He didn't want to see the stumps and he didn't want others to either. "Now I'm able to deal with the fact that I've got nothing there." He's not sure when he made that mental leap, but once the bandages came off for good, putting on shrinker socks without looking wasn't going to happen, so it forced him to get over it.
T oday, he's wearing shorts, his legs stretched out in front of him, the blankets crumpled at the foot of the bed. Before this, he'd never paid much attention to his feet. Like most people, he took them for granted. "They were there. I clipped the toenails, peeled off dead skin, but otherwise, I left them to their own devices, let them hang out, do whatever they wanted," Mitic says. Now, not a day passes when he doesn't think about getting back on them.
H e's in his wheelchair far less these days, but Mitic must still use crutches when walking, as his left leg won't be able to fully bear weight until mid-April. His right leg was amputated below the knee by the explosion, leaving a fleshy stump. His lower left leg was surgically removed and has an inch more of bone. Like the right, it's covered in angry red scars, but is wider because of a titanium plate that protects the shattered bone and is now Mitic's shin. To further protect the bone, calf muscle was pulled around its end, so what was the back of his leg is now the bottom. Despite this, the bone's end is very sensitive and the scar's edge gives him constant pain. Much of the skin has no feeling, but rubbing one area gives the sensation of striking the funny bone.
M itic says, "The pressure of putting on the prosthetic is like a toothache, It really hurts." Mitic has come a long way in a short time. He's told that he's ahead of schedule. He initially spent several weeks at Toronto's Sunnybrook hospital in a morphine-hazed flood of fruit baskets and friends. He moved to St. John's Rehab on Feb. 1.
O n this morning, he gets himself out of bed and into his chair to get his legs on. The layering of socks on his stumps is very much part of the morning routine. He pulls on the legs one at a time. Today, the right leg is swollen and uncooperative. He stands, then changes the sock again. "Is there anything I can do to help?" his mother Joanne asks. "No. I've just got to force it in," Mitic says, straining. Finally comfortable, he wheels down the hall in his chair, a grocery bag of different ply socks hanging on the back.
A fter weeks of physiotherapy, Mitic has the routine down. He starts on the mats, stretching his legs, pulling them to his chest one at a time. He straps weights to his legs with velcro for leg lifts on his side and back. He begins to work the inner thigh, moving quickly from one exercise to the next, stopping only long enough to wipe the sweat he's breaking. He rolls his eyes as he turns over. The painful cries of Enrique Iglesias' Hero are too much. "That's how bad Enrique is. I usually don't hear the radio," Mitic says. Regardless, he's onto his stomach, lifting his upper body and weighted legs at the same time, strengthening his back. He's silent, but for an occasional grunt. "Hardest worker in the room," says a passing therapist. And at 30, Mitic is also the youngest. Clad in black shorts, his broad shoulders covered by a 1 RCR T-shirt, it's clear he has the strength of several other patients combined. This isn't a struggle, just a good workout. He does several sets of crunches before flipping over for pushups. On the last one, he gasps and collapses on his stomach. He hasn't stopped in 15 minutes.
S oon, he's standing between the parallel bars working on balance. His flex feet have some give, but nothing really bends and there's no sensation, Mitic says. With his hands hovering just above the bars, he lifts his left foot and focuses on a spot on the floor. He lasts 55 seconds and immediately tries to do better. "Once you're weight-bearing, we've got all kinds of fun stuff -- you don't know the half of it," says Beth, his physiotherapist. "I love it when you guys try to sound all hardcore," Mitic teases. She has him get down on the floor to see if he can get up. It's only his second attempt, but in one sweeping movement, he's up. "That's amazing," says an onlooker. While many are impressed with his progress, for Mitic, it's not fast enough. "My schedule is ASAP for everything, so if I'm a month ahead, then I think I'm a month behind."
T hese are his last days as an in-patient. Next week, he'll start treatment as an outpatient every other day. Beth's also developed a strengthening routine to do on his own. "Just pretend the legs are there," she says, as Mitic tries to position himself for a new stretch. In assessing him, she asks if he's confident about stairs. "As long as I have a handrail," Mitic says. He's also mastered uneven pavement, sidewalks and sloping walkways. They head out into the hallway to see how far two minutes can take him. Though Beth tells him it's not a race, he covers 91 metres in two minutes and 132 metres in three. "I'm so happy to see you go," says an orderly as Mitic walks back to his room. "It's beautiful."
A t St. John's, Mitic had a standing afternoon date with his occupational therapist, June. Today, they're discussing driver assessments. Until he undergoes one, any accident he's involved in while behind the wheel will be deemed to be his fault -- whether it is or not. After lifting weights, it's onto bean bags. Although June doesn't even come up to Mitic's shoulders, she stands behind him in case he loses his balance as he whips the bags across the room. "Grenades are area weapons. You just have to get it near the target," he deadpans as a third beanbag hits a nearby garbage can, missing its target. June wonders about getting him to pick them up. "You're the boss," Mitic says, as he uses a reacher to gather them. "Good boy. It's time you go home," she says.
M itic doesn't expect to be back home in Petawawa until July. For now, a condo rented by the army near St. John's is the next best thing. Though grateful for the care that's brought him this far, Mitic was eager to leave his hospital "cocoon." Despite having the bust of his beloved Elvis perched on a bedside table, wearing a hat his sniper buddies had made and being surrounded by pictures of loved ones, the space never felt like his own. A regimental flag hanging next to a large "Welcome Home Jody" banner that his cousin made didn't do it, nor did the stacks of magazines, basket of books and large stuffed dog hanging off the shelf. The condo feels more like his space. At least he can lock the door.
I n many ways, however, life outside the hospital and the routine has reinforced the new reality he was already struggling to deal with. As focused and committed as he is to healing, the fact he can't stand up to go to the bathroom because "I have to piss right now" is frustrating. He has to put on his legs or relieve himself in the chair. "If I'm in the wheelchair, I have to piss in a cup or I can sit on (the toilet) like a girl, but I don't want to do that. So to piss, it's five minutes."
W hether he can wear the legs depends on how long he's going out for. When grocery shopping, he can only buy what fits in his backpack. Putting on pants is difficult because he can't bend his legs. Getting them off is no easier. Even making a cup of coffee and carrying it to the living room is out of the question. "I can only use a travel mug with a lid that closes," Mitic says. "And forget about a bowl of cereal. Until I can walk without an aid, that's going to be an issue." It's all about learning the little tricks, but there are situations where tricks won't help.
itic says, "I used to be the tallest person in the room, now I'm ass-level with the short people. I have to deal with the looks, the stares, with people opening doors." As his fiancee Danielle leans in to kiss him on the head, he takes her hand. "She doesn't think I'm less." People always ask if he's okay. He wants to say he'd let them know if he wasn't, but holds his tongue because he knows they mean well -- and because he feels bad about the toll he's taken on loved ones. "Everyone is upset because of me and because I did this job," Mitic says, looking down at his legs. "I feel guilty mostly that I caused them grief. I know they don't hold it against me, but you still feel bad about it."
T he bizarre irony is that the feet Mitic no longer has still hurt. Phantom pain can be so severe it makes him jump. His left foot sometimes feels like a needle is being pushed into it. In his right foot, the pain is more frequent, up to five times a day. "It's there right now," he says, sitting on the edge of a physio mat. "It feels like something is chewing on my toes and my heel. All the time, I'll reach down to try and scratch. Then you realize there's nothing there."
D espite the challenges in his path, Mitic is very much focused on the future. He intends to return to the life he had: Biking, jogging, driving, hiking and camping. He may end up with as many prosthetic feet as activities, saying it's like buying a car. "They're all the same, you just have to find one for you. But you can also have one for every situation you find yourself in." Once rid of his crutches in a few weeks, he's giving himself a week with a cane. Should it take longer, he says he'll be disappointed in himself. He has an important walk to take, but right now it has a floating date: He has to walk his new bride up the aisle. "When I can walk without a cane and without a limp -- when I can just walk normal, right now that's the date," Mitic says. "It's hard to plan around something like this."
A fter losing both legs to a land mine in Afghanistan, he faces uncertain future. For Master Cpl. Jody Mitic, soldiering is not what he does, it's part of who he is. The army is a way of life. "I love what I do. The guys on my team, I love them. I'm getting paid to be challenged and have fun." When he joined 10 years ago, he was posted to CFB Petawawa, intent on fulfilling his 20-year contract. Despite losing both legs to a land mine in Afghanistan, he's still just as intent. Although he's trying to focus on healing, he's nervous his future is in someone else's hands. "(Until now), I did what the army told me, but it was up to me to stay. Now it's up to someone else. I'm worried someone might decide that I'm not worth keeping." Even if he can't soldier as hard as before, he's able to instruct, given his specialized skills as a sniper. "I'm not useless," Mitic says.
H e wants to earn his pension and avoid a medical discharge if he can. To do that, he'll have to complete the physical tasks set out in the Universality of Service standards, which ensure everyone in the military is employable and deployable. Those who fail to meet those standards because of physical or mental limitations can work for up to three years before being medically discharged, even if they're still able to keep working. "I think it's a flawed policy, but I'm biased," Mitic says.
A s he sees it, the military is short on instructors for new recruits. An injured soldier may not be able to deploy, but could free up someone who is. "Who better to train them (new recruits) than someone who's been wounded doing the job?" Mitic says. Cmdr. Denise LaViolette, public affairs official for the chief of military personnel, said while that's true, the Canadian Forces must have a majority of its personnel able to deploy without restrictions -- it's limited in the number of people in that position (with restrictions) it can afford to pay.
A fter a significant rehabilitation period, injured soldiers are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If they are employable, efforts are made to accommodate that, even if they can't meet the universality standards. Those who can, return to service. For those who can't, three years until medical discharge was deemed to be the best time frame to allow them to accept their limitations, while helping them transfer to civilian employment. "That's what bugs me. 'Thanks for your 10 years, your three times overseas, here's your money. Veterans Affairs will take care of you from here on in,' " Mitic says. "Universality of service has its uses, but to follow it to the 't' is a mistake. And never mind just me, there are other guys who want to stay. You can do all that work for nothing, just to be told, 'Sorry pal.' "
B rian Forbes, secretary general of the National Council of Veterans Associations, agrees. "You'd think there might be a little more opportunity if the government had a little more budget for defence," he says. "If these people are that enthused and this supportive of the military, let's keep them around." Not to mention the skills and experience they bring. He says it seems to be a different standard applied to those who've served overseas, compared to those who've been behind a desk. "These (injured) guys are more exposed to the test because it's even more obvious that they may not be able to be deployed," Forbes says.
C onvinced he can achieve any challenge put in front of him, Mitic hopes to go back into combat. He draws inspiration from the story of Capt. David Rozelle, the first American amputee to return to active command in Iraq. "It's not impossible for someone with an amputation to meet the universality of service," LaViolette says, noting that it has happened in Canada before and is happening in the U.S. Marine Corps.
W hatever the outcome, Mitic will accept it. "I'll be disappointed, but I won't hate anyone. If they deem me not able, that's all I can do." But he doesn't want his military career to end with a discharge. "I want to serve. We're doing what infantry is meant to do (in Afghanistan)."
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