Angels in my life

Story by Steve Ghiringhelli, Fort Drum Mountaineer

Soldier’s tough recovery relies on family, community support

Early in his recovery, Maj. Matt Smith gets some fresh air outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the help of his son. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Matt Smith and Megan Smith)

Early in his recovery, Maj. Matt Smith gets some fresh air outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the help of his son. (Photo courtesy of Maj. Matt Smith and Megan Smith)

It’s like a premonition when he thinks about it deeply enough, like he can still somehow go back to Afghanistan and change what happened.

It was just before noon June 8, 2013. The Americans were wrapping up two hours of advising Afghan National Army partners at a forward operating base in the Zarghun Shahr District of Paktika province.

It had been a quiet, almost peaceful Saturday morning at “Super FOB,” recalled Maj. Matt Smith, an astute, highly respected artillery officer with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI).

The plan was to break, go to lunch and reconvene in an hour and a half. Smith had just decided he would head back to the American side of the Super FOB for lunch when a vehicle pulled up with three men inside.

“Who’s this guy?” Lt. Col. Todd Clark asked over his shoulder, referring to a man seated in back wearing traditional Afghan garb.

An ANA soldier jumped from the passenger seat, lowered his rifle and opened fire.

The first bullet split Smith’s femoral artery. Dropping to the ground, he pulled a tourniquet from his pocket. It went on his right leg a bit too high, but he could not stretch and place it farther down because of the M4 on his back.

Next to him, 1st Lt. Nate Jerauld was shot in the forearm. Capt. Matthew Heenan took a bullet in the shoulder. Across the road, Clark, Maj. Jaimie Leonard and civilian contractor Joseph Morabito were mortally wounded.

Staff Sgt. Chad Hart and Cpl. Jered Dominey, who would later both receive Bronze Star Medals with “V” devices, led the counterattack.

In the chaos, the 10th Mountain Division Soldiers commandeered the ANA vehicle and placed the injured inside. They reached the American side of the Super FOB and carried the injured into the aid station.

Smith had lost a lot of blood. Heenan remembers Smith’s leg ballooning to twice its normal size.

As they awaited their 15-minute Black Hawk ride back to Forward Operating Base Sharana, Smith’s blood pressure stabilized a bit. The tourniquet seemed to be doing its job.

The same morning, Smith’s wife was shopping in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when a “terrible feeling” came over her. She considered heading home to Fort Drum, New York.

“It was pouring rain and pretty late, so I talked myself out of it,” Megan Smith said.She picked up her two sons from a family member’s and headed back to the home of Smith’s mother, Anne McMaster, with whom she was staying.

As she drove, the same nagging feeling returned. With her boys now asleep in the back, she considered hitting the road. But the rain was torrential. She talked herself out of it again, but only — she promised herself — if she left for New York at first light.

She was back at Fort Drum by Sunday night. After putting the boys down, she took care of a few things before falling asleep just before midnight.

The phone woke her less than an hour later. Groggy from driving all day with cranky boys and the same nagging feeling, she listened for a voice, but only heard a phone ringing back at her. Still trying to wake up, she remembered the same thing happening during past deployment calls.

Then, a woman’s voice. It was a nurse. She was by Matt’s side, and he wanted to talk to his wife.

“He started to speak and his voice was weak and extremely raspy, like I’d never heard him,” she said. “He told me he had been shot. I started to cry.”

Staying positive

Maj. Josh Adams, 2nd BCT brigade surgeon at the time, shared a small tent with Smith in Afghanistan. He said his friend’s complexion was extremely pale as his gurney was wheeled into the surgical aid station at FOB Sharana, where medical staff performed emergency surgery to save not just his life but his leg as well.

Hours later, the apparent success of the surgery was welcomed news to so many still reeling from the deaths of Clark, Leonard and Morabito.

“That day was hard for many of us to deal with,” recalled Adams, who worked on casualties besides Smith. “Matt making it through was a big boost for us.”

Before Smith was flown out of FOB Sharana, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Richard “Rick” Crunk and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Timothy Wing stuffed some personal belongings into his wet weather bag, along with a note: “Get well Boss! We’ll see you in the fall!”

Smith, still unconscious from the anesthesia, was medevaced to Bagram Airfield. Complications developed during the trip, however, and he woke up the next day in Bagram without his right leg.

Yet Smith said he was fortunate to be alive. For months on end, he had interacted with Clark several times a week and worked with Leonard every day. Losing them was harder than losing his leg.

“My heart ached for their Families,” he said. “And I couldn’t help thinking about my family experiencing that kind of pain.”

The next day, Smith arrived at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital in Germany. His good-natured humor was remarkable to those who visited him there, including Heenan, who was also receiving treatment there for his wounds.

Heenan said what most impressed him was Smith’s obvious resolve and lack of self pity. “I was inspired.”

Jerauld, who would eventually undergo seven surgeries on his arm, also was at Landstuhl. He had seen Smith wake up from surgery at Bagram bleary-eyed and disoriented, so he went to check on him.

“I’ll never forget it,” Jerauld said. “He looked up, smiled and said, ‘They give me all these drugs and keep coming in here and bothering me. All I want to do is sleep!’”

They both laughed. Jerauld said he knew then that Smith would be fine. “He was back to himself.”

After two days at Landstuhl, Smith contracted viral pneumonia. It wouldn’t be until June 16 that the gaunt and bearded Soldier would stabilize enough to fly home and finally embrace his wife at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Megan, Patrick and Charlie

Megan Smith said she does not remember what initially attracted her to her husband, probably looks or something equally trivial, she said, then laughed.

“But I do remember something he said to me in an email that week after we met 16 years ago,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t have much to offer you but myself, and I’ll give you all of me.’”

She said he has been true to those words, which could help explain the level of devotion and sacrifice she has demonstrated during his intense year of recovery.

“It’s hard to accurately explain the heroic nature of her actions,” Matt Smith said. “She has comforted me, reassured our little boys and graciously played host to an unbroken parade of friends and family coming to see us.

“She is truly one of kind,” he added, “and has been the greatest source of strength in my life.”

With surgery after surgery, recovery has been a long and uncertain process. Smith was determined to get back to being an active father again for his 5- and 3-year-old boys, Patrick and Charlie.

His rehabilitation included many painful, challenging sessions at the Military Advanced Training Center, a state-of-the-art occupational and physical therapy complex at Walter Reed.

He described the physical parts of recovery as being like a sprint and the mental aspects more like a marathon. He could manage getting his body back, learning the exercises and working hard every day. But his strong instincts to plan his military and family life out several years into the future had to be reigned in, which became mentally exhausting.

“But that’s when the angels in my life were at their best,” he said. “My wife and children provided me a whole new level of confidence in myself, and a purpose, an unrelenting purpose, to continue searching for excellence.”

Facebook

For the Smiths, their resilience and growth throughout Matt’s recovery have come by finding ways to be grateful and leaning on loved ones in the darkest of times — lessons that have spilled over into social media.

Megan Smith said it seems like an odd thing to be thankful for, “but I am very thankful for Facebook.”

Shortly after her husband’s injury, she created a Facebook page called “Matt’s Road to Recovery.” She said it was awkward to “friend” people on her personal account, especially if people were looking for updates on her husband and she was posting something endearing or funny related to the kids.

“It seems odd to say, but in the very early weeks, Facebook made me realize this was not all about us,” she said. “I received so many notes from people who were there that day. The anguish and hurt in their words made it clear that this was a major life event for most people who had any part in it.”

Now followed by more than 1,300 people, the “Matt’s Road to Recovery” page has become what she calls an “interactive journal” for expressing her thoughts and receiving comfort and reassurance.

“It has been an amazing release for me, especially in very uncertain moments,” she said.

A positive yet bittersweet aspect of the page was in connecting with the families of Clark, Leonard and Morabito. Although she initially worried that she would unwittingly hurt them with something she wrote, she eventually discovered they were genuinely happy to know her husband was doing so well.

Beyond the ripple effects of June 8, 2013 on his family, friends, comrades and extended Army family, Matt Smith said Facebook has also impacted recovery.

“One of the things I struggled with this year is that I’m an intensely private person,” he said. “Because of the public nature of my injury, I had to endure a certain violation of that privacy.”

His wife led the way, and Smith said that with every picture posted and milestone reached, the “engaged support system” of Facebook had a recharging effect on his recovery. That’s because resilience involves more than a person may be naturally comfortable giving, he explained.

“The better you communicate your needs and accept the support given, the stronger you’ll become,” Smith said.

‘As long as they’ll have me’

Last November, Smith and his wife attended the brigade ball at Fort Drum. The two Soldiers who had quickly scribbled a note at FOB Sharana and stuffed it in Smith’s gear learned that he had kept the note for motivation to be able to attend the ball.

Crunk, then 2nd BCT’s brigade target analyst, said it clearly demonstrated the kind of unfailing devotion Smith had for his Soldiers.

“He was an amazing leader with a magnetic personality,” Crunk said. “He was someone everyone wanted to be around and learn from.”

Col. Dennis Sullivan, the former 2nd BCT commander, also praised Smith as not only a highly respected leader but also one of Commando Brigade’s top officers in Afghanistan last year.

“That fact remains true today,” Sullivan said. “Matt refuses to let his injuries define him. He remains a leader, husband, father and friend of great character. I hope to see him serve the Army for many years to come.”

Today, 14 months after the attack, the 39-year-old former brigade planner and fire support officer is back to work — in uniform. But the reality of losing a leg is something he still struggles to accept.

Smith, who also deployed as a battery commander in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2006 to 2008, always thrived in competitive sports, hard military training and the joys of wrestling on the floor with his sons.

“When I began to realize that no prosthetic could ever replace those experiences, I was forced to adjust my relationship with myself,” he said. “It’s an adjustment I still struggle with, but I realize that the core of someone goes much deeper than what that person can do.

“There’s no better place to learn that lesson than at Walter Reed,” he added. “Recovering alongside a group of Soldiers who are hurt far worse than you humbles even your most legitimate gripes.”

Looking back, Smith said if he could have leaned more forward that morning in June of last year, he probably would have put his tourniquet lower on his leg, likely causing his femoral artery to bleed out. He said placing it high saved his life. “It was like fate, almost.”

As fate would also have it, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno recently approved the designation of an Operation Enduring Freedom Study Group to write a history of the OEF campaign, and Smith was asked to be the group’s executive officer.

Working out of Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., Smith will operate on a 30-month timeline to produce an official, 700-page book that will serve to capture the critical lessons learned at the operational and strategic levels of war.

With his family by his side and a new mission in hand, Smith said he is grateful and no longer worried about life three and four years in the future.

“I’ve learned the precious value of each day,” he said. “I (want) to expend emotional energy on what is going on around me and not what might or might not happen in the future.

“The plan right now is to continue in the Army for as long as they’ll have me,” he said. “I am very grateful for the care I have received, and I still have a lot more to give to the Army.”