I had the honor of interviewing Lieutenant Colonel Tim Karcher for my upcoming book, New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah. And then, last summer, I told you about LTC Timothy Karcher when he was severely wounded during an attack on his vehicle in Sadr City. I have followed his incredible journey back to life over these last months. Last week Tim Karcher was invited to speak to ROTC students at Harker Heights High School. Take a few moments to read his message to these young men and women. His words will give you a new outlook on facing adversity.
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Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you all tonight. I would like to share with you a story that changed my life. It’s a story of adversity, a story of faith, a story of meeting challenges head on. I don’t expect that this story will change your life, but I hope that when I am done speaking with you tonight, you will see that all of us can overcome any challenges that we face in life.
As you can see, I don’t have legs. On the 28th of June of last year, while I was in the midst of my third combat tour in Iraq, my patrol, and more specifically my vehicle, was struck by an Explosively Formed Penetrator, an EFP, which is a shaped-charge designed to blast a hole through the armor of our vehicles. This EFP punched a hole through the passenger door on my vehicle, taking with it my legs.
At the time, my battalion was conducting operations in Sadr City, a slum in northeastern Baghdad, Iraq. This was one of the most troubled areas of Baghdad, and there were a great many insurgents who fought us daily. These insurgents viewed Coalition Forces as occupiers and resisted our efforts to help the people of Iraq. My battalion was not only fighting these insurgents, but we were also trying to help our Iraqi partners develop a working government and capable security force, while attempting to increase essential services for the people of this community of almost two million people. We were really trying to help these people to develop a free, functional government that would provide for the needs of the people.
Unfortunately, the insurgents viewed everything that we did with outright distrust and hatred. They believed that the Coalition was simply trying to install a puppet-government in Iraq, so that the US could exploit the nation of Iraq. The insurgents wanted to be in charge; therefore every good thing that we brought to the people was a threat to their ability to take control of the country. So, they fought us tenaciously.
This brings us to that Sunday morning at the end of June; a day that changed my life. I remember the morning well. I was planning to go to one of our small bases that we shared with Iraqi Army forces, and turn this base over solely to Iraqi control. The current Coalition strategic plan was to reduce the presence of US combat forces in the Iraqi cities, and place the onus of responsibility for securing the Iraqi people squarely on the shoulders of the Iraqi Army and Police. Our forces would be taking a more advisory role, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces. It was an ugly morning; already hot and there was a significant sandstorm blowing throughout Baghdad. I considered staying at my base that morning, because we try to limit non-essential patrols when there are heavy sandstorms, due to our inability to support ground forces with aviation assets, like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, attack helicopters, or even medical evacuation helicopters. But it was my duty to hand over this base to our Iraqi partners, and if I didn’t do it, one of my company commanders would have to do my job. I have been trained by the military to take my duty seriously, and to accomplish my mission. The famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, “Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.” So, I decided we’d go, and I’d do my duty. As we prepared to depart our base, I remember asking my security patrol leader, who was concerned that we were patrolling in these challenging conditions, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?
About 10 minutes into the patrol, we were attacked. My vehicle was hit by four of these EFPs, but the armor stopped three of them from penetrating our vehicle. The fourth penetrator came through the door, and struck my legs. Initially, I thought I had two broken legs and reported that to my crew, as I asked for a report from each member of the vehicle crew. Thank God, the other four members of my crew were fine. Once I received their reports, I looked down at my legs for the first time. My M4 carbine had been blown in half, and at that point I realized that my legs were not broken, but instead blown to pieces. That was kind of surprising, and I updated my crew on my actual status. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is gonna be hard,” thinking that learning to walk again was going to be challenging. At that time, I like to say that I decided to take a break, and I passed out.
Some great Soldiers saved my life that day. They drug me out of the vehicle, stabilized me by slowing the blood pouring out of my legs, and rushed me to our Battalion Aid Station, where our Physician’s Assistant worked feverishly to get me stable enough for an hour long drive to the Combat Support Hospital, or CSH, in Baghdad. At the Baghdad CSH, the doctors performed about eight hours of initial surgery on me to save my life.
I then began the odyssey of being evacuated to the United States. My initial stop was in Landstuhl Germany, where doctors continued to work on me to get me stable enough for the eight-hour flight to the States. A week after I was injured, I arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington DC. Throughout this week, my wife and daughters were on a roller coaster, receiving reports of my condition from the military and friends who were by my side throughout this ordeal.
I remember bits and pieces of my stay in Germany and the early days at Walter Reed. Even when I got back to the States, I continued to have to fight to survive, returning to the ICU on four occasions, with at least two of those occasions being pretty dicey. I remember thinking at one time, as I was being rushed back to the ICU, “So, this is what it feels like to die.”
I have been told that I am lucky to be alive, that I shouldn’t even be here. I have had many folks tell me how surprised they are by my positive attitude and disposition. Those two comments surprise me.
When people tell me how “lucky” I am to be alive, I laugh. In my personal belief system, luck has nothing to do with why I am here today. In my belief, I am here because it is all a part of my God’s plan for me. In my belief, He took this tragedy, and will make good come of it. He promises to never give me a greater challenge than I can face. I take great comfort from these beliefs. They are my beliefs, and I am in no way trying to force my beliefs on others, so I am not going to dwell on them. But, I’m not lucky to be here, I am blessed to be here.
In regards to people’s surprise at my positive attitude, I will tell you that I believe that one of the only things that you, and only you, can really choose, is how you will confront life’s challenges. In the psychological community, they talk about the “Fight or Flight” syndrome, which is the natural reaction to a surprising adverse encounter; a person can either fight or run away. I see my choices, and anyone else’s, when facing adversity as just that simple; you can accept the situation that you find yourself in and try to make the best of it, or you can crawl into a hole and wallow in self pity. I really belief that one path leads to life, and the other path leads to death.
When a person faces a major trauma or set back in their life, it can be a significant challenge. I literally woke up in the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, in a medicated haze, not really sure where I was and who the people around me were, to be told by an old friend, who I didn’t even recognize at first, that I had no legs. I admit that it didn’t really sink in at first. As it started to sink in, I remember thinking that my life had just changed forever. Never once though did I think, “Wow, my life is over.” That’s why I always say that this was a life changing experience, not a life ending experience. But simply deciding that it was a life changing experience was my decision, I could have decided that it was a life ending experience, and I probably wouldn’t be here tonight with you all.
Despite making this decision to treat this as a life changing experience, vice a life ending experience, the thought of losing your legs is somewhat traumatic. It is very common, that an experience such as this can affect someone psychologically. This brings us to the subject of grief, and how do we, as people, handle grief?
Again, the Psychological community espouses a concept of the Stages of Grief, first formulated by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. According to Dr. Kubler-Ross, human beings handle grief in a five stage process – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. I knew of these stages of grief prior to getting injured, and I fully expected to go through these stages. I expected to not accept that I no longer had legs. I expected to get angry, but I didn’t know who the target of my anger would be, figuring that the insurgents or maybe even Iraqis in general might be a target of my anger, or the people I loved possibly, or maybe even I would be bold enough to be angry at my God. I just wasn’t sure. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to face the Bargaining Stage, because I really didn’t believe that I could roll back time or grow back legs. I felt certain that I understood how the Depression Stage was going to work, with daily pity parties and constant feelings of “Why me?” I could see the end state of Acceptance. I just didn’t know how I was going to work through these stages, or even if I would.
From the moment that I truly comprehended that I had lost my legs, I really believe that I accepted it. I say that “from the moment that I truly comprehended that I had lost my legs,” because I was pretty drugged up and getting me to comprehend any fact was a bit of a challenge. I had to be told things several time, just to get it to sink in. Once it sunk in that I had no legs, I really just accepted that that was going to be the way life was from now on. But I also accepted something even more important.
While I accepted that I no longer had legs, I refused to accept that this was going to end my life, nor even did I plan to let it significantly change my life. I decided that I was going to get healthy, get prosthetics, learn to walk, run, and jump again, and then continue my life almost as it had been. Sure, the way that I did things might be different, but I planned to continue to do whatever I wanted to do. As I think about it, I believe that maybe it was easier for me to skip the Stages of Grief, because while I accepted the fact that I did not have legs, I refused to accept that the loss of my legs was going to keep me down.
When I look at this experience, another thing that stands out to me are the blessings that I have experienced as a result of this incident. Again, it surprises many folks when I talk about how blessed I am daily, because when they look at me they see a cripple without legs, but when I look at myself, I see a man who has been blessed with a great life. Every day that I live is a blessing and a gift, because according to the doctors, I should not even be here.
I literally bled out five times over the first three days following the attack; as the doctors pumped blood into me as fast as I was pumping it out of me. Add to that the fact that over the summer while at Walter Reed, most of my major internal organs, heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach, and so on, decided to take a break and stop functioning for a period of time. Each one of these temporary organ failures ended me back down in the ICU. So, when I figure that I should have probably died a couple of times during this journey, every day that I’m alive is a gift.
Probably the next greatest blessing that stands out as a result of this experience is the absolute love and support of my family. I can honestly say that my lovely wife Alesia, and our three girls kept me fighting for my life. I honestly did not want to leave them; I didn’t want my wife to be without a husband or my daughters to be without a dad. My four girls really gave me the will to live, and I see each of them as a blessing sent straight from God.
Another blessing that has arisen from this challenging time in our life is that we have reconnected with many old friends. It is amazing that when something like this happens, friends from the past come out of the woodwork. I was surprised, as we spent the summer in Washington DC, how many friends that I had in that area. Now, as we’ve returned to Texas, and our unit has returned, we’ve been blessed by visits from so many friends.
If old friends are a blessing, new friends are another blessing. We have met so many really wonderful people as a result of my injuries. I have been honored to speak powerful national leaders, both military and civilian. But, I have also met some ordinary people with extraordinary kindness. If I hadn’t been hurt, I would have never met these people, so I count this as a blessing.
I tell you all this in the hopes of impressing upon you that life is precious, and it is a gift. While often times it is hard, we are still far better off seeing our lives as a series of blessing. We can choose, our attitude is our own. So, ask yourself, do you want to face challenges head on and make the most of them, or do you want to wallow in self pity when life throws you a curveball.
I cannot imagine how difficult it is to be a teenager today. I know that it has gotten harder since I was one. But I also figure that none of you can imagine how difficult it is to have no legs. So, if I can get through this challenge and keep a positive attitude, you can get through your challenges, and keep a positive attitude. There is really nothing special about me.
In closing, I would just like to ask you all to understand that life is going to present you with some challenges. Some of the things that you consider challenges will be minor compared to what I am going through, but some of you are actually liable to face even more significant challenges than what I’ve just spoke with you about. I would simply ask you to remember, as you face these challenges, that your attitude is your choice. I can tell you that a positive attitude makes life a whole lot more enjoyable than sitting around wallowing in self pity.
Thank you all for having me here tonight. I hope that you enjoyed my story as much as I have enjoyed spending time with you all tonight. God Bless you all.