This sgt. 1st class lost his leg to an IED. Now he’s a jumpmaster. An incredible comeback story
By Sean D. Naylor - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Feb 23, 2009 16:36:46 EST
One by one, as their names were called, the 70 graduates from 3rd Special Forces Group’s demanding jumpmaster course strode to the front of the classroom to receive their certificates.
The Nov. 18 ceremony in the Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters of the group’s 2nd Battalion, was similar to dozens of graduation events held each week across the Army, with one exception: the 33-year-old sergeant first class who, when his turn came, walked with a slight limp to accept his certificate. On that day, he became the first amputee to graduate from any Army jumpmaster course.
“Finally,” “Mikey” Fairfax thought as he regarded the admiring and respectful faces of his peers, “I’m back in the Army. I’m one of the boys again.”
That feeling had been a long time coming.
John “Mikey” Fairfax’s life changed forever at 7.30 a.m. July 30, 2005.
That sun-drenched morning found Fairfax on a mounted patrol along a dry creek bed in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province. The senior communications sergeant on an operational detachment-alpha, or A-team, in 3rd Group’s 1st Battalion, Fairfax was driving the lead Ground Mobility Vehicle — essentially a Humvee on steroids — when an improvised explosive device blew up under his wheels.
“It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard,” he said. “It was just deafening … and I knew exactly what was happening when it went off … The first thoughts in my mind were ‘Please God, don’t let me die,’ because you know that many people don’t walk away from IEDs.”
The force of the explosion blew Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hotchkiss from the vehicle’s turret, where he’d been manning the .50-caliber machine gun, and also banged up the team leader, Capt. Sam Robins, who was in the front passenger seat. Robins and Hotchkiss recovered; Fairfax was easily the worst off.
His left lung was partially collapsed and his vision was blurred, probably because his right eye had almost popped out of its socket. On top of all that, his right leg felt numb.
But as smoke filled the vehicle, a “very dazed and confused” Fairfax knew he had even more pressing concerns.
“I told myself ‘I need to get out of this vehicle,’ because I didn’t know if it was going to burn to the ground or what,” he said.
The team’s senior medic, Sgt. 1st Class Derek Coyne ran up. “Mikey, Mikey, what can I do for you?”
Coyne removed Fairfax’s body armor and put a tourniquet on his right leg. Neither of them knew it, but Fairfax’s femur was broken, and in breaking, it had cut his femoral artery. “I was basically bleeding out from the get-go,” Fairfax said.
“I knew I was in a bad way,” he recalled. “I really wasn’t thinking about my leg, I was just thinking about staying alive.”
Thirty minutes after the explosion, Fairfax’s team sergeant, Master Sgt. Guy Valquiette, told him, “Mikey, you’ve got to hang on for another 30 minutes.”
“At that point I really got scared and I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Fairfax said.
When the medevac helicopter arrived with the battalion surgeon, Fairfax asked the doc how long the flight was. “Sixty minutes” was the answer. Another wave of doubt flooded over the wounded soldier.
Then the lights went out.
The next thing Fairfax recalls was the voice of his wife, Paula. “Hey baby, I’m here.”
It was four days later. Fairfax was coming out of a drug-induced coma in a hospital bed in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany.
“They flew my wife over … because they didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” he said.
Fairfax had lost a lot of blood on the operating table in Kandahar, Afghanistan. “A surgeon was working on me and they couldn’t stop the … femoral artery from bleeding,” he said. “Finally it held after three attempts, but I was still losing blood from that area.”
Paula didn’t recognize him. “Half of my beard was shaven off … I had tubes coming out of me all over the place,” Fairfax said. “I looked like the Michelin man because they’d pumped a lot of fluids in me [and] I had a patch over my right eye.”
Paula had entered the room, then walked back out. When the medical personnel insisted that she had been in the right room, she went back, took another look at the figure lying in the bed and fainted.
When she came to, the medical staff persuaded her to start talking to her husband as they tried to bring him back to consciousness. Her voice had the desired effect.
“My eyes started to flutter real fast, my arms started to flail everywhere and it freaked her out,” Fairfax said. “She ran out of the room.”
Within hours, though, the Fairfaxes were headed back to the United States — and a waiting hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. — on a C-141 Starlifter specially configured for medical flights.
His first month at Walter Reed was “pretty rough,” Fairfax said.
“I was having real bad nightmares,” he said. “I was just reliving it every night and every day. I’d talk in my sleep and ask for Derek, the medic.” He had a persistent 103-degree fever.
Television offered little escape. “I didn’t like watching anything with violence, especially the news with guys dying in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. Loud sounds bothered him.
Gradually the symptoms eased.
“I was still pretty emotional anytime anybody asked me what happened … but the more I talked about it the better it got,” Fairfax said.
His leg was another matter.
The explosion had blown away so much skin and muscle that parts of his knee and femur were visible. His knee cartilage was gone. Nerve damage caused chronic, severe pain.
He spent almost three months as an inpatient at Walter Reed, then a similar amount of time at Fisher House with his wife and children while undergoing a series of operations at Walter Reed.
“They took one of my calf muscles and had to sew it to the side of my leg to cover the bone and open tissue, and then had to do extensive skin grafts to cover that and the burns,” he said.
“At least I had my family there with me,” he said. “It would have been different if my wife and kids weren’t there.”
The Fairfax family returned to Fort Bragg just in time for Christmas 2005, and he spent the next six months recuperating at home and doing physical therapy at Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center. Finally, Fairfax returned to duty in June 2006, shifting to a job on 3rd Group’s operations detachment, a company-size element in the group’s support battalion.
But even after all the operations and therapy, Fairfax was far from back to normal. His leg still only had a 70-degree range of motion, compared with the normal 120 to 130 degrees. The pain was perpetual.
“I was always on some type of narcotic to help me with the pain,” he said.
Three more operations failed to improve matters.
Fairfax started talking to his friend Dale Beatty, a North Carolina National Guard staff sergeant he had met at Walter Reed. Beatty had lost both legs below the knee to an Iraqi anti-tank mine and was doing well.
Beatty was leery of the drugs Fairfax was taking to cope with the pain. “Guys who have that type of pain and that … limb that they’re dragging around that’s fused together with bolts and wires and titanium plates, they’re going to be on narcotics the rest of their life,” Beatty said. “Eventually that stuff starts taking a toll on your psyche.”
You have another option, Beatty told Fairfax. Give up the leg.
“Would you rather be pain-free and be functional and active, or do you want to drag that hunk of meat around for the rest of your life?” is how Beatty recalls challenging his friend.
As Fairfax remembers it, Beatty was blunter still: “Why don’t you just cut it off and get rid of the pain?”
At first, Fairfax laughed off his friend’s suggestion. “Then I started thinking about it and doing a lot of research into things like prosthetics,” he said.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense.
Fairfax was confronted with a life-changing decision: listen to his friend or do as his doctor recommended.
“I went home, prayed about it and came to the decision to have my leg amputated,” Fairfax said. “I was tired of being in pain all the time. I was tired of not being able to do the things I used to do. I wanted to get back to being a soldier, being a Green Beret. I’ve been in the Army since I was 17 years old and that’s what I love to do.”
On Nov. 15, 2007, doctors at Walter Reed amputated Fairfax’s right leg above the knee. Two weeks later, he contracted a staph infection that would flare up twice more.
Then Maj. (Dr.) Robert Blease, an orthopedic trauma surgeon who also commands the 274th Forward Surgical Team (Airborne) and is a former Special Forces medical sergeant, got involved.
By this point, Fairfax was in a bad way.
“He was getting depressed and at [his] wit’s end,” Blease said. “He’d elected to have the amputation and was no better off at that point in time than he had been before.”
Blease put antibiotic beads inside what remained of Fairfax’s right leg and prescribed a course of seven weeks of intravenous antibiotics and eight weeks of oral antibiotics. That did the trick.
“So far so good, he’s made a very good recovery,” Blease said.
“No recurrent infections and he’s losing weight, which is one of the big things … If you’re overweight, it’s hard to get a good fit in the [prosthetic] socket, and you keep having these recurrent infections,” he said.
Fairfax’s chain of command in 3rd Group and Special Forces Command offered consistent support and encouragement. “They never once said, ‘Hey, you’re going to get boarded out,’” he said. “They always said, ‘Hey, there’s always going to be a job for you.’”
Special Forces Command has taken a similar approach with other amputees.
“Those guys take better care of their troops than pretty much any other branch of the Army,” Beatty said.
Fairfax is one of six Special Forces soldiers who have had legs amputated and are still on active duty in the groups — three in 3rd Group and one each in 1st, 5th and 7th groups, according to Special Forces Command spokesman Maj. Chris Augustine. But of those six, only Fairfax and one other have stayed on active duty in Special Forces after an above-the-knee amputation, Augustine added.
For his part, Fairfax gave no thought to quitting Special Forces or the Army.
“I’m a senior noncommissioned officer, I’ve been in group for almost 10 years now, I’ve got three combat rotations,” he said. “They might have took my leg, but I still have my mind, I still have the knowledge and experience.”
“I remember his saying that all the time — ‘I’m staying in, I’m going to prove to myself that I can do it,’” Beatty said.
Fairfax has remained in his group support battalion job, but he still harbors an ambition to return to the fight.
There are no regulations that explicitly limit amputees from specific Special Forces jobs, according to Col. (Dr.) Peter Benson, the command surgeon for Special Forces Command.
Benson said in a statement to Army Times: “The individual soldier’s ability to perform all the required tasks expected of a Special Forces operational detachment-alpha team member and the likelihood that they do not pose any detriment to themselves or their unit are the main factors used in determining whether they are cleared to return.”
However, while it is possible for Fairfax to work in a company headquarters (a B-team, in Special Forces parlance), his injury makes it unlikely that he will return to an A-team.
“That was one of the hardest things I had to deal with,” Fairfax said. “But that was one of the reasons I had the amputation done — I was just determined to get back to doing at least everything I was capable of doing … I can still be in the group and on the B-team in some type of support role, instead of being on an ODA.”
He is taking steps to make that happen. In summer 2007 he became qualified as a Special Forces assistant operations and intelligence sergeant (military occupational specialty 18 F).
“Now I’m an 18 Fox so I’d like to go back down to a battalion and deploy again and just work the intel side,” he said. He plans to return to an operational Special Forces battalion and work on a B-team, which would put him in a position to return to a combat zone. “That’s one of my goals — to deploy again downrange,” he said.
Such goals might have been out of reach for Fairfax if not for recent advances in prosthetic limb design.
Fairfax has a choice of two types of such devices. For “everyday use” he wears what he calls a “mechanical knee.”
“It’s one I can get wet, because I’ve done water jumps with it, [and] it’s real durable,” he said.
He also has a computerized prosthetic — a “C leg” — that has to be regularly charged but is more advanced than the mechanical knee.
“The C leg thinks for you, it automatically swings the leg forward, whereas with the mechanical [knee] you have to consciously know that your leg is moving forward,” he said.
But because of his fight with the staph infection, Fairfax only had three weeks back in his socket before meeting his biggest professional challenge since the explosion: the special operations jumpmaster course run by 3rd Group.
“Jumpmaster school had always been one of my goals,” said Fairfax, who before going through the Special Forces Qualification Course in 1999 had been an airborne infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. “I just had that determination that, hey, I’m going to do this,” he said.
No bureaucratic hurdles barred Fairfax’s way.
“He met all the prerequisites to attend the course,” said Master Sgt. David West, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the course. “A slot was given to his company. They gave him the slot.”
West, who was one of Fairfax’s instructors when the latter was going through the Special Forces Qualification Course, harbored few doubts about Fairfax’s ability to make it through the three-week jumpmaster course and none about his right to give it a shot.
“I knew from back then his personality and his determination would lead to his succeeding in the course,” West said. “My personal feelings on it were that he’s as deserving as any other SF soldier that we have here. He’s still in uniform and still performing duties and he’s entitled to do what every other soldier’s doing.”
The evening before the course started, West told the rest of the instructors about Fairfax’s condition.
Their reaction? “For want of a better term, psyched,” West said. “It’s a very demanding course and you look at yourself when you hear something like that and you say, ‘Wow. Would I be able to do that? Would I even want to do that?’ So the admiration toward Sergeant Fairfax was pretty high,” he said.
In addition to a challenging academic component, the course is very physically demanding, West said. He highlighted two portions of the course — the jumpmaster personnel inspection (JMPI) and practical work in the aircraft (PWAC) — as being the toughest.
In JMPI, “the standard is to inspect three jumpers in five minutes while identifying all the deficiencies,” West said. “It is a very rigorous standard.”
This is the portion of the course that trips up most soldiers who fail, “because it is so physically demanding — you have to bend, squat, turn, lift, while inspecting a fully combat-equipped jumper,” he said.
PWAC includes “all your commands and door inspections in the aircraft while in the air,” West said. “Sergeant Fairfax was required to lean outside the aircraft and do outside door checks while in flight.”
There are two main differences between the special operations jumpmaster course run at the group level in Special Forces units and the regular Army’s jumpmaster course, West said. First, graduating the special ops course qualifies a soldier to be a drop zone safety officer, he said. Second, the special ops course teaches its students how to put jumpers out of short take-off and landing aircraft, a category that includes helicopters and small fixed-wing planes, he said.
In July, Fairfax made his first parachute jumps since the amputation, jumping into water to lessen the impact on his leg (even though he says his mechanical knee is strong enough to withstand a ground landing).
But one thing he did not have to do during the course was jump out of an airplane, as parachuting is not required to graduate from the jumpmaster course.
The short time Fairfax had to get used to his socket before the course left him in considerable pain throughout the three weeks. His old instructor from the Q Course saw the toll it was taking on him.
“Where everyone else had two legs to stand on, and it’s fairly easy for us to bend and squat — it’s something we don’t think about — these are difficult tasks for him and he did them without hesitation or complaint,” West said.
Driving Fairfax on was a sense of responsibility for all those who might follow in his path. “Before I started the course I told myself, failure’s not an option, because if you fail, if another amputee tries to go through the jumpmaster course, they might say, ‘Hey, we’ve already tried this, you can’t go.’ So I wanted to prove that it can be done with enough determination … Because there’s a lot of guys that want to stay in, that are like me, either amputees or have [other] real bad combat wounds,” he said.
Fairfax wanted to set an example, so that those soldiers could say, “Hey, he did it — I can do it.”
The first time many of the students realized Fairfax had only one leg was during JMPI training on a concrete surface. “When Sergeant Fairfax went to do one portion of his inspection, he dropped to his knee, which was his amputated knee, and his prosthetic hit the ground and you would have thought a bomb went off,” West said. “It didn’t bother him at all but it caught everybody else off guard. They were like, ‘Wow, didn’t that hurt your knee?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t have a knee.’”
But despite the physical disadvantages Fairfax had, the cadre could not afford to go easy on him, West said. “Being a jumpmaster, you have somebody else’s life in your hands,” he said. “If I cut him slack, he could go out there [as a jumpmaster] and the real possibility exists that somebody could end up dying because of that. So it’s just not possible to cut somebody slack in a jumpmaster course. He has to be held to the exact same standards as everybody else, and he was.”
Those standards meant that of the 80 soldiers who started the course, 10 didn’t complete it.
Fairfax was six months ahead of the most optimistic expectations of Blease, the doctor who had set him on the road to recovery. “One of the things I tell all my trauma patients upfront is that their recovery is 20 percent due to my intervention and 80 percent of it is on them,” Blease said. “He’s gone through a horrendous course from beginning to end and done incredibly well with it.”
Fairfax’s performance was “exceptional,” West said. “In his written examinations he was probably in the top 5 percent of his class, and he was probably in the top 10-12 percent overall,” he said.
West said that watching Fairfax excel in the jumpmaster course has changed his own views about what amputee soldiers can achieve in the Army. Previously, West said, he knew “theoretically … sure an amputee one day can do this again or that again, do almost anything anybody else can, but after seeing what Sergeant Fairfax did in the course, I’ve truly come to believe that.
“These guys have a place in our organization, in our regiment, and not just behind a desk,” West said.
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