Public Affairs Officer, 165th Airlift Wing
Georgia Air National Guard
I recently had the honor of visiting a friend at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, which is the first destination in the continental United States for caring for the wounded, ill and injured from global conflicts.
It was one of the most sobering and uncomfortable experiences of my life, yet invaluable.
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Micah Welintukonis trained me and 150 airmen and sailors heading to Afghanistan, and he taught us combat life saving — a skill that is most important and yet one you hope you never will need or utilize.
Konis, as he wanted to be called because his last name was too hard to pronounce, was my trainer, a beer drinking buddy and a friend.
He was severely wounded on his return deployment to Afghanistan in July. His abdomen had staples from his breast bone to his pelvic bone, where grenade shrapnel wounded him. His left elbow had been rebuilt where enemy bullets shredded the bones.
And yet he was one of the lucky ones at Walter Reed.
Walter Reed is where the most critically wounded make their way back into the fabric of the American way of life. The most evident injuries to those men and women we can all easily call heroes, were missing appendages. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines bravely faced each day with their Purple Hearts and pride intact.
None wanted to be there, but, much like their fighting spirit, they were fighting to preserve their dignity while they learned to adapt to their new lifestyle. This would not be a lifestyle of choice, but one inflicted on them by an enemy whose greatest weapon is the indiscriminate improvised explosive device designed to kill and maim the unsuspecting. These heroic men and women were learning to adapt and overcome the cards they were dealt, to persevere in a world where the missing leg or arm is considered a weakness.
But it wasn’t at Walter Reed. And it’s not here in my world.
These are men and women who willingly put themselves in harm’s way and didn’t flinch when their time came to go outside the wire. They went, they saw, and most times they came back safe. But tragically, too often they didn’t.
Of course, this isn’t a television show where they can pop back up for the next episode. Instead, they lay in a pool of blood, their bodies, minds and lives shattered for their country.
Konis was comatose for a couple of weeks. His comment to me after coming out of his coma was “the bastards got me.” But, they really didn’t.
Konis, like most American soldiers, just wanted to know when he could get back to his mission, his unit and his buddies.
He doesn’t wallow in self-pity.
Heroes like Konis stand up, or try to stand up, as a flag comes by in a parade. They return a salute with their good hand. They smile and laugh with their families.
For me, the war became personal that day.
It was the first combat injuries I had ever seen up close. It was the first time watching a pregnant wife trying to figure out how to care for her children, her husband and herself. It was the first time I could not turn away from the horrors of war for the results of the carnage were in my face, like an unrelenting nightmare. It was the first time watching a friend struggle to become whole once again.