Marine Corporal Miroslav “Mike” Kazimir was dreaming of a bright future with his bride of just 13 months as he wrapped up a deployment to southern Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines in the spring of 2011.
Those dreams were derailed during a routine patrol near Marjah when Kazimir and his fellow Marines ran over an improvised explosive device with their mine resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The blast killed two of Kazimir’s closest buddies and wounded two other Marines in the vehicle.
Kazimir, the machine gunner in the lead vehicle, was sent flying from the vehicle, along with its entire turret and gun assembly. He slammed down in a field, his body shattered and his brain bruised.
“It’s amazing that I wasn’t killed,” he said. “I guess I got lucky. I honestly don’t know how I survived that blast.”
Flash forward nearly four years, and Kazimir remains a patient at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. To date, he has endured 58 surgeries, with another planned before the year’s end.
Next spring, Kazimir expects to be discharged from the hospital and medically retired from the Marine Corps as a sergeant. More surgeries will undoubtedly follow, but Kazimir sees these as the next steps in the long, ongoing path to rebuilding his body, his spirit and his life.
Healing the Body
Kazimir calls his very survival a testament to the military medical network that began working just moments after the blast. His fellow Marines immediately jumped in to apply their pre-deployment training in battlefield casualty care.
“They knew exactly what to do, and that saved my life,” he said.
A British military helicopter quickly swooped in to whisk Kazimir to advanced-level care. He had lost so much blood that he received transfusions from 10 different people before ever leaving Afghanistan, he said.
The following day, Air Force aeromedical evacuation crews flew Kazimir to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Another aircrew transported him six days later to what has been renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Kazimir’s wounds were extensive. The blast had injured his upper spinal column, broken his femur, shattered bone in both tibias, damaged both heels and ankles and inflicted a brain injury. He suffered regular bouts of “crazy pain.”
Amputation would have been the quicker and ultimately, less painful option for Kazimir. He had heard stories of comrades bounding around the hallways of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center quickly after being fitted with prostheses.
But from the moment he regained consciousness and understood his options, Kazimir was committed to saving his legs.
“Call me stubborn and pigheaded, but they’re part of me and I wanted to keep them,” he said. “I don’t go the easy route—ever.”
Dr. John-Claude D’Alleyrand, an Army lieutenant colonel who led Kazimir’s medical team, laid out the cold facts for Kazimir and his wife, Marcela. He explained the pain and potential complications he would likely face during repeated surgeries. Infection could set in at any time, the doctor warned, leaving no other choice but to amputate.
But Kazimir could not be dissuaded. “Don’t touch my legs. I’ll take my chances,” he said.
D’Alleyrand honored Kazimir’s wishes. He devised two treatment plans tailored to the wounds on each leg and embarked on what he would later call one of the most challenging cases of his career.
Throughout the surgeries and treatments, Kazimir defied the odds with slow but steady progress. He amazed his doctors when he stood independently for the first fleeting moments in 2011 and especially when he took his first steps in June 2012. “They were blown away,” he said with a smile.
Now wearing a revolutionary, carbon-and-fiberglass orthopedic device in his shoes to support his feet and ankles, Kazimir praises D’Alleyrand for taking on a seemingly impossible challenge. “He put my legs together, and I am forever thankful for that,” he said. “He came up with the plan and made it work,” added Marcela, calling D’Alleyrand “the father of Mike’s new legs.”
Healing the Spirit
Living through a roller coaster of progress and inevitable setbacks, Kazimir recognized early on that his mental attitude was key to his physical healing. “It’s a lot more mental than physical. A lot of it is up here,” he said, tapping the side of his head.
He credited the hospital staff for their expertise, encouragement and occasional prodding to keep him moving forward. “Sometimes you need an extra push,” he said. “They were always there to give that to me.”
But just as important to his healing, he said, was his wife’s constant presence. Marcela initially moved into the Navy Lodge on the hospital grounds so she could spend every waking moment at his bedside. Since he moved to outpatient status in November 2011, they have lived in a new wounded warrior barracks apartment on the hospital campus.
“If I didn’t have Marcela here, I don’t know how well I would have done,” Kazimir said. “I don’t know that I would have had to drive to keep up the fight. Having her here with me has kept me motivated.”
But Kazimir also recognizes the rest of his support network—particularly other wounded warriors—who helped him cope with his emotional pain.
“The deaths of my two brothers scarred me for life. It’s in my brain, and I think of them often,” he said. “It’s tough. It changed me big time.”
Rather than allowing the anger he feels to fester, Kazimir channels it toward his own recovery and that of his comrades. Now a familiar face at Walter Reed, he makes a point to get to know other wounded warriors. He listens to their stories, shares his own insights and offers encouragement when they need a boost.
“You realize that nobody understands you like your buddies,” he said. “All of us have been there. We’ve all been shot at, blown up. We’ve been through the same thing.”
This special bond is “a huge factor for everyone” in their recovery, he said. “When we talk, it’s almost like therapy.”
That camaraderie now extends to the ice rink, where Kazimir has joined the USA Warrior Sled Hockey Team. Once an avid athlete, Kazimir initially resisted taking up sled hockey. “He didn’t want to face the fact that he couldn’t play regular hockey, standing up,” Marcela said. “But he tried it one time and loves it. He’s having a blast.”
Kazimir is quick to recognize the huge outpouring that has made it possible for him to do things he once thought impossible for a wounded warrior. Thanks to the generosity he has found, he travels to sled hockey tournaments, adaptive skiing events and wounded warrior retreats. Earlier this year, he attended to the D-Day commemoration in Normandy, France.
These activities provide an escape from the hum-drum routine of hospital care, but also a great source of personal satisfaction. “Everywhere we go, people greet us with respect. Everybody is clapping, shaking our hands, thanking us,” Kazimir said. “It’s amazing.”
Looking back over the past three-and-a-half years since that IED attack in Afghanistan, Kazimir and Marcela say they have both grown in ways they never imagined.
“Our lives will never be the same,” Marcela said. “I’m proud of Mike and what he has accomplished. But this experience has taught us to appreciate life. Because of what we have been through together, we are stronger, both as individuals and as a couple.”
Building a New Future
Knowing he can never repay all those who helped him rebuild his body, Kazimir said he plans to live heeding the challenge posed by his doctor. “You have your legs,” D’Alleyrand told him. “Now use them to do good.”
As he prepares to transition from the hospital environment and military, Kazimir is charting a future course that he hopes will allow him to continue to serve.
He has a new source of motivation—a bubbly 1-year-old daughter with her father’s big blue eyes and her mother’s delicate features. Little Lillian was born at Walter Reed last September, and has yet to live outside its protective gates.
“This has totally changed me,” Kazimir said. “What I think about now is this little girl and her future. I want her to grow up with a safer future than what we have now.”
With that goal in mind, Kazimir spends two days a week as an unpaid intern at the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence in nearby Rockville, Maryland. There, he gets to work side-by-side with industry, government and academic experts focused on confronting the most pressing cybersecurity threats.
“I’m learning so much, it makes my head spin,” Kazimir said. “But I can tell you this: The threat is real and it is serious.”
Recognizing that he will soon hang up his Marine Corps uniform for good, Kazimir hopes to redirect his warrior spirit toward this insidious and ever-more-oppressive enemy. He dreams of working for the U.S. government in Germany, close to family in Czech Republic and Slovakia and the medical care he will inevitably need in Landstuhl.
“Maybe I can’t take up machine guns anymore, but I can still serve,” Kazimir said. “I fought for this country and I am still fighting. And when this is all behind me, I am still going to fight. That is my plan. I still want to help in some way.”
Donna Miles is a Maryland-based freelance writer and former American Forces Press Service writer.