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    Suddenly left handed: Army Soldier overcomes above elbow amputation, returns to active duty, joins World Class Athlete Program

    Suddenly left handed: Army Soldier overcomes above elbow amputation, returns to active duty, joins World Class Athlete Program

    Photo By Spc. Robert Vicens Rolon | Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Smith, a Soldier assigned to the World Class Athlete...... read more read more

    COLORADO SPRINGS, CO, UNITED STATES

    09.20.2019

    Story by Spc. Robert Vicens Rolon 

    14th Public Affairs Detachment

    Part 1: Suddenly Left Handed: The Darkest Days

    Army Sgt 1st Class Michael Smith, now an active-duty Soldier-athlete with the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), was the first above-the-elbow amputee to receive fit for duty status. This is part one of his harrowing journey back to Active Duty.

    An angel in the night

    It was late at night along a dark highway in Nashville, Tennessee.

    The neon lights under Smith’s motorcycle carriage glowed bright red as he tore along the highway. Smith and three friends drove their bikes in a line, within clear sight of each other, the way seasoned motorcyclists do to protect their own.

    Suddenly Smith noticed a car approaching too quickly from the onramp.

    “I see her coming,” Smith said. “I could see the glare on her face from her phone.”

    He revved his engine. He honked his horn.

    “I remember feeling a tap on my back wheel,” Smith said. “On a motorcycle, you can get into those ‘wobblies’ pretty fast. When she tapped me, my back end swung left, then it swung right.”

    Smith was launched from his motorcycle across the highway median and into oncoming traffic. Another 10 feet and he would have been launched into the space where the highway split, at a huge drop-off.

    “I remember flying, and I remember seeing headlights by my face,” Smith said. “Before I could hit the ground, another vehicle hit me. It was a white truck. That’s all I remember. When I came to, I wasn’t sure if I got ran over or not. I remember I was shaking uncontrollably. That survival instinct kicked in — I realized I was still on the highway. I remember trying to scoot back and when I went to prop myself up, I remember putting my hand inside my hand — my right arm was behind me. As I’m getting up, I literally pulled my arm out of my jacket. That’s when the pain hit me.”

    Smith lost consciousness again. When he regained it, he was still on the side of the road, but now his head was in a strange woman’s lap. She had seen the accident and immediately pulled over to help. Smith was losing a lot of blood and so she told him she needed to apply a tourniquet.

    Delirious, Smith’s Army training kicked in. He tried to give her directions. He tried to tell her that she needed to apply the tourniquet high and tight.

    “I’m a Navy Corpsman,” the woman said.

    Smith heaved a sigh of relief and passed out for the third time. Navy Corpsmen are famously some of the most well-trained military medical personnel.

    “It was like an act of God,” Smith said. “She saw what happened and immediately jumped into action.”

    Smith doesn’t know the woman’s name, or even remember what she looks like, but he owes the woman his life.

    “If it wasn’t for her, I would have bled out,” he said.

    Don’t take my arm

    “Is there any way we can not tell the Army that I lost my arm?” Smith asked during the ambulance ride to the hospital. It was a question he would repeat over and over as he came in and out of consciousness, and the first question he would ask when he came out of the coma that lasted the next few days.

    “I wasn’t thinking about my arm or my health,” Smith said. “I was worried about getting kicked out of the Army. I kept thinking, ‘Everything I’ve worked for is gone.’”

    Smith’s mother, Brendolyn, didn’t know what to expect when she received the call that her son was unconscious and in the hospital, but she hopped in her car and drove from Texas to Tennessee.

    “When I first saw him, I immediately started praying,” she said. “It hurt to see him like that.”

    Smith lay in a bed unconscious, his arm reattached and sealed in a cast.
    His mother vowed to stay by his side and be strong for him during the hard days to come, where Smith said he experienced pain he wouldn’t wish upon his worst enemy.

    “When I woke up, my arm felt like it was about to explode,” Smith said. “I kept complaining to the doctors but they said I needed to keep the cast on. I just reached over and grabbed a scalpel. I cut (the cast) off and threw it on the ground. It was like a five second relief, and then the pain came back in.”

    The pain would go on like this for months. Smith underwent numerous surgeries in a vain effort to save his arm.

    “One day, I picked up a pen and I hit the top of my hand,” Smith said. “I remember it making a clunking sound like I was tapping on concrete. That’s when I realized the hand was dead.”

    The next morning they amputated the hand up to the wrist. Over the next few weeks, they cut his arm away piece by piece as infections and dying tissue made it impossible to save the arm. After the fifth amputation, Smith was told they needed to amputate higher than where the arm was originally severed, which would leave him with just a few inches below the shoulder. The infection was too severe, and if they didn’t stop the infection from moving into his chest, they would have a hard time saving his life, not just his arm.

    “I literally had to make up my mind right there,” Smith said. “I remember thinking ‘This is hell. If we would have just kept the arm off where it broke off, I wouldn’t be going through this.’ So I told them, ‘Just take it. I’m through — just take the whole arm.’ And they took it.”

    Smith’s mother worried about her son’s bleak outlook after the surgery.

    “When he woke up after they amputated, I saw him so angry,” Brendolyn said. “I never saw him so angry. He wanted everyone to get out. He didn’t want anyone around him. That hurt too. I wanted to hold him.”

    The fog

    Over the next year, Smith struggled to survive the mental fog from his pain and the drugs. Smith said his mother hated letting him watch television. If he saw something he liked on TV, the medication made him an impulsive and unreasonable shopaholic. Every so often, his family would come home and there would be a new vehicle out in the driveway.

    “When the Chevy Avalanche came out — I remember there was a Chevy dealership near my house,” Smith said. “My mom said I threw a fit until someone took me to buy the truck. My mom and my grandma went grocery shopping and I bribed my uncle with 100 bucks to take me to the Chevy dealership so I could buy the truck. Also, I bought a Mercedes Benz; I bought a BMW and I bought an Acura.”

    Smith slept in a bed only once in two years, he said. There was no way to get comfortable.

    “The first time I tried to sleep on a bed after I went home, I rolled over my arm and it busted open the stitches,” Smith said. “On the couch I couldn’t roll anywhere.”

    He depended on his family for everything. And even though he was grateful, he was afraid of being alone.

    “It really sucked knowing my family was taking care of me but, eventually, they were going to have to leave and I was going to be by myself,” Smith said. “I felt helpless.”

    Over the next year and a half, Smith endured phantom pains that took him to his knees, addiction to pain medications that barely provided relief and severely limited his mental faculties. He survived another brush with death as an inexplicable illness drove Smith’s body to a skeletal 110 pounds. The doctors raced frantically to discover the cause — kidney failure.

    “It was a scary feeling, to be slipping away and nobody knows what’s going on,” Smith said. “I didn’t have a chance to develop any feelings about death. I was loopy the whole time.”

    Later, he would ask himself what he did to deserve his situation.

    “I kept thinking, ‘I’m just trying to do right for my daughter and be a good man. Now I’m about to leave this earth and I’m just asking, ‘Why me?’”

    Recovery came slow but steady.

    The phone call

    One day, a phone call from a relative changed everything, setting Smith on the path to a full recovery.

    Smith didn’t know anything about the Warrior Transition Unit at the time. His cousin, however, worked for the Air Force in San Antonio, where Smith would later spend two years of his life recovering.

    “My cousin called my mom and told her, ‘Mike needs to be here, because there’s a WTU here,” Smith said. “She knew they could help me.”

    The WTU are part of the Warrior Care and Transition Program, which evaluates and treats wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers as they heal, and assists with transition either back into the Army, or out into the civilian world.

    Smith’s mother and family encouraged him to go to the WTU, never realizing how far he would ultimately go.

    “I told him, I’m not giving up on you,” Brendolyn said. “You are not a quitter. You are getting through this. Then we started seeing him do things we never thought he would be able to do.”

    It was at the WTU in San Antonio where Smith would stand toe to toe against precedent and expectation, rising above the darkness of his situation, transforming his body into an elite, award winning athlete.

    Smith would overcome every obstacle to become the first above-the-elbow amputee to receive a fit for duty status and return to active-duty service.

    Part 2: Suddenly Left Handed: Legacy

    Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Smith, now an active-duty Soldier-athlete with the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) was the first above-the-elbow amputee to receive fit for duty status. This is part two of his harrowing journey back to Active Duty.

    An end, and a beginning

    One afternoon in August 2011, and the day before the accident, Smith took turns throwing a football in his front yard with his neighbor’s son.

    The boy was left handed so just for fun, Smith practiced ungracefully throwing the ball with his non-dominant arm.

    “That would be crazy, to all of a sudden be left handed,” he told himself. “My life would be over.”

    That was how Smith felt when he finally made it to the Warrior Transition Battalion in Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. He felt defeated. The 5’11, once enthusiastic and gregarious Smith, a one-time college basketball player and fit Soldier, had spent the last few years of his life inspiring the next generation of Soldiers as a recruiter.

    Even though when Smith first joined the Army he did so thinking it would be a four year affair, allowing him the opportunity to put his mother in a house and his sister through college, he quickly fell in love with the Army. His initial plan transformed to reenlistment after reenlistment, and three combat tours. It was a love he etched onto his body in ink, where along his left arm, Smith sports a tattoo for each rank he earned.

    For the moment, that person was gone. Smith now weighed a whopping 250 pounds. He had no hope of staying in the Army. He was bitter and angry.

    “Warrior Transition Units cater to those individuals who require comprehensive medical treatment for greater than 6 months,” said Col. Eric Edwards, commander of Evans Community Hospital at Fort Carson, who was Smith’s battalion commander during his two years at the WTB. “Smith’s situation was extreme. He needed to be able to overcome being an amputee. It wasn’t all physical but also mental.”

    Today, Smith doesn’t feel shame over the arm he lost. He is proud to say that everything anyone can do with two arms, he will find a way to do it better with one. He knows he is a driven, whole person — but the journey of rehabilitation was difficult.

    “At the end of the day, I want to be real with people,” Smith said, gesturing with his left hand to the stump of his right arm. “There were some dark, gloomy days.”

    What Smith needed was someone to believe in him, and to push him.

    “Every now and then you meet someone who sees the potential in you before you see it in yourself,” Smith said.

    For Smith, one such person was Heather Gardner, a recreational therapist at the WTB who challenged him to attend a mini Spartan race.

    She basically bullied him into it, Smith admitted.

    He sucked wind the whole way, weighed down by his negative mental attitude that said: “Yeah, well you got two arms — If I had both my arms, I could do it too.”

    But something changed along the way during that race. Gardner pushed him, racing along Smith, goading him both mentally and physically, at one point saying: “Mr. big time athlete, that’s all you got?”

    It flipped a switch inside of Smith that lit a fire in his heart. Smith couldn’t understand how he had let himself get so far gone. The voices from all the people telling him what he could and couldn’t do became louder in his head, and a fever pushed him forward to prove those voices wrong.

    “I had this determination on my face like you wouldn’t believe,” Smith said. “I was angry and hungry. From then on, I was thinking, I’m fitting to kill this.”

    He finished that Spartan race with a renewed vigor. After that, he was in the gym every day taking spinning classes. He trained Cross Fit. He signed up to anything and everything that he could. He had something to prove.

    Legacy

    Unfortunately, that drive to succeed also gave him a chip on his shoulder, Smith said. It made him mean and combative, until one day commander Edwards called Smith into his office.

    “What do you want your legacy to be?” Edwards asked. “Do you want it to be ‘Sergeant Smith, the jerk with one arm who couldn’t accept defeat,’ or ‘Sergeant Smith who was an inspiration, always smiling, encouraging and motivating people’ — who do you want to be?”

    Smith took those words to heart.

    Edwards said that after Smith walked out of his office that day, he had a positive and viral influence with the battalion.

    “I decided no one would ever catch me with my head down,” Smith said. “People feed off your energy. I wanted when people see me that they believe in themselves — I want them to say, ‘if he could do it, then I sure could too.’”

    At first Smith didn’t know how far he would go. He only knew that he wanted to be the best version of himself possible.

    The first race he won was a half marathon. He chased the runners down one by one, hunting down the first place runner for over an hour until he passed him five feet before the finish line.

    “He was so mad,” Smith said. “He kept asking, ‘Where the heck did you come from?’”

    It took Smith several months before he was able to accomplish his first one armed push up. But now that his mindset had changed, it was no longer a physical game, but a mental one.

    “First I had to get my mind right,” Smith said. “Once I had that, the physical part was easy.”

    Smith stood out and qualified to participate in a new program called the Soldier Adaptive Reconditioning program which began that year— it gave Smith the opportunity to participate in Department of the Army and Department of Defense, as well as regional Paralympic competitions. He raced in Spartan games, Invictus games, and as many challenging obstacle course races and tests of human endurance he could find — if it presented a challenge, Smith was ready to overcome it.

    Smith was an unstoppable force, even getting promoted to sergeant first class during his time in the WTB.

    Edwards felt honored to be invited to the promotion ceremony to pin Smith with his new rank.

    “He stood out,” Edwards said. “I thought he was representing everything we wanted out of an Army Soldier. That’s where I took a special liking to him.”

    The faith was rekindled in Smith’s heart. He would find a way to stay in the Army and receive a fit for duty designation.

    Not everyone encouraged him in times of struggle, however. There had never been Soldiers with an above the elbow amputation that had returned to active duty. When he first expressed his desire, he met resistance.

    Just because it hadn’t been done, didn’t mean that it couldn’t be done, Smith said.

    Smith had his mother make him a T-shirt with the following words as encouragement: “I’m coming after everything you said I can’t have.”

    It was in his heart that he was going to be able to do anything and everything a regular Soldier could do and more.

    He printed a list of the requirements and began chipping away at them.

    He learned to qualify on his weapon with one arm, utilizing a special prosthetic arm and visited the virtual firing lane every day.

    He crushed the PT test — and even though he could have opted out of the push up event due to his injury he trained to take the regular Army physical fitness test.

    “I wanted to remove all excuses,” Smith said. “Something I used to tell my Soldiers all the time was — give the Army a reason to keep you, not a reason to kick you out.”

    Two years after arriving at the WTU, Smith was in the best shape of his life.

    Resiliency

    One morning during formation, Smith was unceremoniously told by his platoon sergeant that his orders had come in for medical retirement.

    “When they told me I had to retire, I literally broke down in front of everybody,” Smith said. “I had snot bubbles and all. Everybody knew I had been working hard to stay in.”

    The retirement orders meant that in less than one week, everything he had worked for would be over. It was time to start out-processing.

    But his resilient spirit burned with indignation and desire. He had worked too hard to prove himself a capable Soldier. He composed himself and went that very day to JAG and got himself a lawyer, and demanded a formal medical board to fight the decision.

    Two days before he was supposed to clear out of the Army, he was granted an audience with the hospital board.

    He entered the room with his head held high and a bag slung over one shoulder.

    Smith remembers the first words out of their mouth:

    “Sergeant First Class Smith, why do you think the Army should keep you?”

    In response, Smith unzipped the bag and turned it upside down. Over 100 medals spilled out of his bag and clanged on the table. They were awards he had earned in the numerous competitions he had participated in during his time at the WTU.

    “Show me another Soldier on Active duty with two arms who has done what I have with one,” Smith said.

    The Army physical fitness test requires Soldiers to perform as many push ups and sit ups as they can in the two minute intervals allotted for each event. Also, Soldiers must run two miles, all within a certain set of standards. Prior to the board Smith had taken a full PT test and performed 48 one-armed push ups, 107 sit ups, and run his 2 mile event in just over 12 minutes. It was a score superior to the average Soldier within his age group.

    It was more than enough.

    After deliberating for a few minutes, they called Smith back into the room to give him the news that he was fit to return to full Active Duty.

    “You are being charged with an extreme responsibility,” the president of the board told Smith. “You are the example people will want to know about and live by. By letting you stay in, I’m charging you with the responsibility to pay it forward.”

    Smith has carried that charge on his shoulders, undertaking each subsequent assignment with the determination to surpass all expectations.

    “Smith proved he was capable of serving as a Soldier,” Edwards said. “For a Soldier with Smith’s injuries, recovery and rehabilitation were only possible because of both the advances in military medicine and the hard work that Smith put in to get better. He was a remarkable individual both on and off duty. He challenged the system at large and did a remarkable job bringing new light and education to the members of the board.”

    In his next assignment, Smith excelled leading a recruiting station in Arkansas, and later worked in the Pentagon as Adaptive Reconditioning NCOIC for the WTU, where he was in a position to recruit and mentor Soldier athletes recovering from their own wounds.

    Smith continued to compete in athletic events and was eventually recruited to join the World Class Athlete Program, a military unit designed to support elite Soldier-athletes as they perform and compete throughout the year at the highest levels — with the aim to ultimately compete at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

    Smith is attempting something that he says is nearly impossible, and has never been done. He wants to become the first above-the-elbow amputee to compete in the triathlon event in the Paralympics. The injuries most Paralympic triathletes compete with are lower limb injuries. Smith admitted it represents a significant disadvantage for him in the swim portion of the triathlon event, which consists of a swimming, biking and running event.

    “Everything I do is all legs,” Smith said. “I have to swim with one arm.”

    In spite of the overwhelming odds against him, he perseveres. The harder the challenge, the more he is driven to overcome it.
    However, Smith does not want to be remembered for just his athletic prowess. For Smith the greatest satisfaction comes from helping others and motivate them to be better.

    “When I think of my legacy, I don’t want people to think of me as just a great athlete,” Smith said. “I want people to say, 'he was a phenomenal person, he inspired me.’”

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 09.20.2019
    Date Posted: 09.30.2019 17:27
    Story ID: 342695
    Location: COLORADO SPRINGS, CO, US 

    Web Views: 559
    Downloads: 1
    Podcast Hits: 0

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