News: Wounded warrior learns to live again
Story by Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - Sgt. Mark McElroy wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather. His father was a bodybuilder prior to spending 21 years in the Army, and his grandfather served two tours in Vietnam. Both were airborne infantry, and McElroy said he felt it was the right thing for him to do as well.
A native of Delphos, Ohio, McElroy joined the Army in 2010 at the age of 18 and completed basic training, Advanced Individual Training and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He then got orders assigning him to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, where he joined the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
McElroy was stationed here less than a year when he went to Afghanistan. His experiences overseas tell a story of a Soldier’s year in the desert, one that cut his military career short.
“When I was over there, it was almost like you’re not human,” he said. “It’s kind of like you’re a robot. You just get used to doing crazy stuff.”
The Soldier said they had no showers or means to wash their clothes, and ate only MREs for the first several months. His uniforms became covered in dirt, salt and sweat. His uniforms would literally stand up on the ground when he took them off, he said.
“I mean, the living conditions were beyond what people have here, which wasn’t even a big deal,” he said. “It’s just some of the stuff we had to do. You’re taught to feel no emotion as an infantryman. You’re taught to just do your job – you’re so set on your job you don’t really know what’s going on around you outside of being deployed.”
He also carried a Mark 48 machine gun and 1,000 rounds – adding up to 180 pounds of gear with his other equipment – daily for the duration of the yearlong tour.
McElroy went on the deployment weighing 215 pounds. Between not eating and going on patrols, he got down to 171 pounds in three months, he said.
“We had it real tough out there,” he said. “We only had each other to rely on.”
Their two platoons lived on a combat outpost, smaller than a forward operating base, “so small, you could stand at one end and throw a rock at the other end,” he said.
“We’d go out and do a mission, and we’d come back and have to pull a 12-hour tower guard shift,” he said. “You were lucky to get three hours of sleep within a 24-hour period of time. Not three hours straight, 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.”
On missions, they organized seven-man teams where they would go out and set up ambush positions, he said. Sometimes they were out there a few days, sometimes a week or more, just waiting for the enemy.
“It just became a part of me while I was over there,” McElroy said.
The Soldier performed more than 250 patrols "dismounted," or on foot.
“We did do some convoy patrols, but the Taliban’s a lot smarter than people think,” he said. “You can only go so many places in vehicles. You can go a lot more places on foot where they can’t plant the IEDs.”
It was March 1, 2012, when, on a dismounted patrol, he was hit by an IED. He was 10 meters from the explosion.
“My team leader was on point,” he said. “I was beside him and we were walking through a field. He made a slight right turn and as soon as he did, I saw the ground flex out of the corner of my left eye. My adrenaline just started pumping.”
The Taliban had dug the hole too deep, causing most of the blast to travel straight up instead of spraying the Soldiers, who got down as quickly as they could, ready to return fire, he said.
“My ears were ringing; I couldn’t hear anything,” he said. “My head hurt so bad; I don’t know if I blacked out or not. I got up, helped my team leader and another Soldier get back to cover. There was a stone wall about 50 yards behind us. After that, it’s hard for me to remember [what happened]. Throughout the deployment there were multiple firefights, we did a lot of big missions and there were more IEDs, but that one 10 meters away was the closest I ever got. That’s 30 feet away.”
After completing his deployment, McElroy returned to JBER October of 2013 and went through a month of transition training.
“They teach you how to become normal again, whatever normal is,” he said. “To me, [normal] is a setting on your dryer. You can’t go from ‘fight-fight-fight; kill-kill-kill the enemy’ to coming home and being a normal Joe off the street. It just doesn’t work like that.”
McElroy said the Warrior Transition Unit helped him out.
“I’m here because of multiple reasons,” he said. “[Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] is a major issue. Coming back from combat was a struggle. I deal with reintegration, flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and panic attacks where I don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t even drive my vehicle – my wife does the driving. I can’t drive and focus on my surroundings. If there’s a box or something, I still think it might be an IED. If you really think about it, it’s kind of crazy, but that’s my thought process [after] being over there.”
He also suffers from insomnia, he said.
“I’ll lie down for 40 minutes and I’ll be wide awake, ready to go,” he said. “I still can’t get my sleep schedule right. That’s pretty much why I’m here today.”
Carrying so much gear every day, being in firefights and explosions, also cost his body.
“That caused severe back injuries, bulging discs, spinal fluid leaking out of my back, my sciatic nerve’s pinched – that’s something I have to live with every day,” he said. “My wife has to tie my shoes for me half the time, I can’t even bend over. I can’t hear; I’m 80-percent deaf out of my left ear.”
When he in-processed at the WTU, despite a looming medical retirement, McElroy was determined to make the promotion list. Army Staff Sgt. Sheree Lapoint became his squad leader and helped him out, he said.
“When I came here, she could just tell I was squared away, and she wanted to see me succeed,” he said.
Every Soldier is a different mission, Lapointe said.
“[McElroy is] very motivated,” the cadre said. “I could tell he was instilled with discipline. He was the epitome of what an outstanding infantryman was, so for him to come from combat, being a foot Soldier on the line and doing heavy ruck sacking, his mentality was shoot – move – communicate. He didn’t know how to adjust.
“He still brought his morals, his discipline, and the seven Army values over to the Warrior Transition Unit, knowing that it was something he wasn’t used to. He was used to rucking, and we were like, ‘listen, you’re here to recover from your wounds, whatever you’re facing, you’re here to help yourself. Sometimes you’ve got to lay down your weapon and say I need a break.’ I told him that’s what he needed to do.”
Outside of his medical appointments and personal recovery, McElroy kept himself busy by continuing to serve.
“He’s able to go out into the community and work now,” said Lapointe, a native of Davie, Florida. “He’s able to adjust; his work site has nothing but great things to talk about. He’s had great support from his wife. Everything’s been successful for him here. It’s really good to see that. He did what he had to do here.”
“I’m really big into body building and dieting and nutrition,” McElroy said. “I work[ed] over at the Health and Wellness Center on the Air Force side. I work[ed] with an exercise physiologist and a dietitian over there. We do gate analysis and workout plans for people who need to lose some weight or get a better score on their PT test. We help them with their eating habits, or quit using tobacco.”
McElroy, who came to the WTU as a specialist, also achieved one of his career goals; he was promoted.
“I’d only known him for about two weeks, and I knew he was ready to go before the board and stand in front of the command sergeant major,” Lapointe said. “When I had to stand in front of the command sergeant major and he asked me how I know [McElroy] is ready, I said he’s ready to lead Soldiers, regardless if he never does it again. Sometimes you have to take chances on a Soldier, that’s what it’s about. You don’t know what a Soldier is capable of until you give them a chance.
“I told him to keep fighting, keep working on it. So he went up to the board. He was outstanding. He was one of the top five Soldiers who got highly recommended. Lo and behold, he did what he had to do, and he made sergeant all by himself here at the Warrior Transition Unit. He didn’t let anybody tell him he couldn’t do it. It could have backfired on me, but that’s what we have to do sometimes. It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
You get out of the program what you put into it, she said.
“Coming to this organization, you have to want to be better,” Lapointe said. “The keys are here; everybody wants to help out the wounded warriors. PTSD is big here, you have to dig deep and gain that trust. Once you gain their trust, it’s like a beautiful flower comes out.”
McElroy is transitioning into a medical retirement.
“I plan on going to school full time, and working on becoming a professional body builder,” he said. “I’m training hard for that. My dad actually won one of the biggest shows in Ohio [in the 1980s] called ‘Mr. Ohio.’ He just turned 50; he’s still huge. A guy who helped train my dad is training me right now online.”
Despite all the pains and costs of his tour in Afghanistan, McElroy said he misses it.
“I miss the brotherhood,” he said. “It was a big thing. I loved being over there when I was there. You’ve got a group of 20 or so guys who would give their life for you in an instant, and I would have done the same for any of them. When I left, I had the mindset that I was ready to die for my country; I didn’t care if I came home or not. That’s how I lived every day over there, that’s what kept me alive. That’s what kept me on my toes.”