Major Chuck Ziegenfuss was a captain when he was wounded in Iraq in 2005. His experience was the inspiration for Soldiers’ Angels Project Valour-IT. He’s now a student in the Army Intermediate-Level Education program (formerly Command and General Staff College) in Fort Leavenworth, where he submitted this essay as part of his initial writing exam. The assigned topic was, “The most significant day in your military career.”
The most significant day in my military career (as well as in my life) was 22 June 2005. This was the day after I died. It was the day that began a long journey to recovery, rehabilitation and reevaluating my role in the Army, as well as discovering enjoyment in things I’d never previously considered. I will discuss the events leading up to and occurring on 21 June 2005, and how the events of that day have changed my life.
In 2005, I was stationed at FOB Gabe, just Northeast of Baqubah, Iraq. I was in the middle of a very successful command tour. My company had sustained very light casualties—none serious—and was involved in several close combat situations and multiple IED [Improvised Explosive Device] encounters. We were very aggressive and paired with an equally aggressive and highly motivated Iraqi Army company. After six months of continuous operations, my company was expert in mounted and dismounted operations, as well as being a well-established and cohesive team. The morning of 21 June started much like any other: coffee with my platoon leaders, a mission brief and then an early patrol to check on my Iraqi Army counterparts at their check points. We’d received reports suggesting an impending attack on a checkpoint in my AO [Area of Operations], and I wanted to increase our presence, as well as remind the Iraqi troops at the checkpoints that we were with them in the fight. As we arrived at CP 161, a local civilian came to the checkpoint and told of a suspected IED in front of his house. I left the CP with a squad of Iraqi infantry, my tank, and my 3rd platoon. We cleared an area for, and began our IED procedures. About the time we were complete clearing the C2 area, a second, buried IED detonated three feet from where I was standing. I was launched into the air, and landed upside-down and under water in a canal. My XO was nearby and uninjured, and he jumped into the canal, dragging me to safety and beginning to treat my injuries.
I remember giving further guidance to my XO, then telling him we’d best call a medevac. I’d seen some of my wounds, and knew that I had to focus my XO on continuing the mission, and keeping the Company running. En route to Balad, I died. I was revived, and even regained consciousness when I reached Balad. After surgery I was airlifted to Landshtul [Germany], again dying during transport. I died a third time while in surgery in Germany. Thankfully, dying three times in as many days was my limit, and I only suffered cardiac arrest during transport to Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC].
At WRAMC, as I slowly began to regain awareness and then began the even slower process of recovery, a charity I’d worked with in Iraq contacted me. The charity, Soldiers’ Angels, sent many care packages and letters to my soldiers, whom I’d identified as those who received very little mail. Those soldiers were inundated with mail after that, and I wrote often to the founder of the charity to thank her for the outstanding support. The charity contacted me (through my wife) at Walter Reed and asked if there was anything I needed. I wanted more than anything to stay in contact with my soldiers and asked if there was any way they could get me a laptop so I could email them. They provided a laptop, and then software to use the laptop with only my voice—as I was only able to use a single finger to type.
That laptop gave me an intangible gift: the ability to see that my injuries were not the end of the world as I knew it. I was finally able to do one thing I could do before being injured. It gave me hope for recovery. I then asked Soldiers’ Angels if there was a way we could do the same thing for other wounded soldiers. They readily agreed, and over the next few weeks, Project Valour-IT (Voice Activated Laptops for Our Injured Troops) began. Over the next few years, this project would provide thousands of these voice-enabled laptops to wounded service members who had lost the use of their hands or eyes, or were otherwise unable to use a computer. I met many wounded soldiers at WRAMC who have shared the same experience I did—beginning to recover as they saw a return to doing some everyday thing from before they were wounded. They experienced heightened morale from being able to communicate with their buddies, decreased pain from having something else to focus on besides their injuries, and willingness to see their lives as changed but not over.
I began working as a peer counselor at WRAMC, honestly telling newly-wounded soldiers about how their lives were different now, changed in a way none of us ever considered. I explained to them and their families what they were to expect, the emotional struggles, pain, learning to use adaptive equipment, and letting each of them realize that they still had a mission: to heal, and to continue living. I saw in many of them great sadness and depression; I was [not] only able to offer words of encouragement and compare scars and surgeries, but also to tell them that life not only goes on, but eventually it does get better.
Before being wounded, I had always focused on my career—what was the task at hand, what assignment or duty station was next, what I could do to train my soldiers to better succeed. I never gave much thought to being wounded, as that always happened to the other guy. I never took that hard look at myself and assessed whether or not my service made any real contribution to the Army other than being a good leader. As I watched wounded soldiers falling through the cracks of bureaucracy, I became determined to see them as “My” soldiers.
Through my own experiences, I began to reach out to these men and women. In a sense, I was doing what I’d always done as a leader; I was taking care of soldiers. Previously, that meant making sure they were trained, their SRP [Soldier Readiness Program] packets were complete, they were getting paid on time and they were getting promoted. Now it was far more important, taking care of soldiers meant helping them realize their life was worth living. The more I talked to them about their injuries and their troubles, the less my injuries bothered me. The more I helped them deal with pain and anger, the better I dealt with my own issues. Before when I saw a handicapped person, I rarely made eye contact, and shied away from them. Experiencing that treatment first hand, I now see the person, not the infirmity.
Today I am back in the force—contributing to the Army as a leader and student at ILE [Intermediate-Level Education Program]. I continue to counsel my new peer group. I continue to work aggressively with charities to see needs are met when soldiers do fall through the bureaucratic cracks. I continue to push myself to be a better soldier, father, and spouse despite my injuries. I changed immeasurably for the better in the aftermath of my death, and the broadening of my horizons has made me a better contributor to the Army as a whole, and that is why I consider my “alive day,” 22 June 2005, to be the single most important day in my life, as well as my military career.