Just over ten years ago, while battling insurgents on the streets of Mosul, Iraq, I was catastrophically wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade that sliced open by abdomen, punctured my lungs, destroyed my spleen and wreaked havoc on my body. I still remember struggling to breathe, the pain and the voices of my soldiers struggling to save my life.
But this isn’t a story about what happened that day; it’s about where I found the strength to recover.
Faith, hope and will. Those are the things which, I think, form the core of recovery. Faith that things happen for a reason, that there is a plan and there is something more powerful than you controlling it all. This faith, in turn creates hope.
Hope that it will get better, that you still have something to do. When you are facing indescribable pain, the possibility of never walking without assistance again and never using a toilet again, you cannot lose these two things. Without faith and hope, you cannot have the will to survive, to improve and make something of your new life.
I have described mental pain as darkness with a cold wind that cuts to the bone, blinds your eyes and howls with loss. It is soul-rending, destructive and evil. The physical pain combines the feeling of thousands of needles buried in your skin with the breathtaking pain upon moving and the sensations of drains, sutures, tubes and other devices moving inside your body. The agony is magnified by the knowledge that if any one failed, you could tear open.
Then there is faith. The idea that what happened to me happened for a reason. In some ways, my faith would have been less challenged if I had not lived. I made peace with my God on the battlefield and in the arms of a chaplain as I drifted off to blissful unconsciousness. Waking up with a breathing tube, tied to the bed and in indescribable pain threatened to rob me of that peace—that sense that there was a reason because it meant my time wasn’t done. It meant what time I had left may be filled with suffering.
For a time, I left faith behind. With it went any hope and any will I had to live. I contemplated suicide and one night came so very close. I just couldn’t do it. As I heard my wife get up to take care of our crying son, I found a small bit of light and for whatever reason, I grabbed at it. I cried, my wife came to check on me and held me as I wept. Kim never once looked at me as wounded and she never noticed the tubes and the open wounds. She laughed, she showed me she was still attracted to me and showed me that my son still saw his Daddy not as a broken man, but a whole one.
I found my faith again. I accepted that I could not be in control, that this all had a purpose and because I was still alive, that I still had work to do. Acceptance brought hope and as the surgeries became farther and farther apart, being healthy again became something achievable. When I watched my men climb off the plane, and as I listened to them tell me how happy they were to see me, I found the will to go on, to find my purpose—to lead again. Two years later, I was on patrol in Baghdad, leading soldiers. Three years after that, I would lead them again as a troop commander.
There can be no recovery without the will to recover and that will has to come from a hope that you can get better. Regardless of where you place your faith, you must have the belief that there is a purpose behind the suffering. On top of all of this, you must have people around you who support you and who are willing to fight the darkness and pain with you. Not for you, but with you.
My chain of command, my soldiers, my friends and most importantly, my family, all stood with me. My leaders helped me find work to do within my capabilities as I recovered, my soldiers inspired me with their perseverance and strength, and my loved ones carried me when I couldn’t walk and pushed me to my limits to help me recover.
It was hard. I failed more often than I succeeded. I let despair and pain win from time to time, but not as often as we beat it back. When I look in the mirror in the mornings, I see the scars and wonder about those days after I was wounded. Today, my scars serve as a reminder that keeps me going.
Service isn’t just about wearing a uniform, it is about getting up every day and doing the best I can to love my wife. It is about raising my children to be good citizens and people. Service is about doing every job with pride, knowing that each and every day I have the ability to make a contribution to keeping the Army strong. Finally, it is about telling my story so that those who are still recovering and those who may one day be wounded themselves can know that there is hope.
Even today, as I prepare to medically retire from active duty, that sense of purpose still is strong in my heart. My life is about service to my country and to the men and women I am given the privilege of leading. I was blessed with 10 years of active service after I was wounded and I will take that experience and sense of purpose with me into my civilian career.
I may not serve in uniform again, and a pen and paper may have replaced my rifle and Stryker, but I will continue to serve my country until it no longer needs me.
Major Damon T. Armeni medically retired from the Army in November 2014.