Editor’s note: On occasion, Checkpoint will feature work from U.S. service members and veterans. This is one such piece. On May 27, Marine Cpl. Michael Egan celebrated his “Alive Day,” the anniversary of the day he was wounded in combat and survived. This is his story.
It was as though I was watching myself die from afar, witnessing my own life slip away from me. I looked at my Marines as they knelt around me, hitting and screaming for me to wake up, crying out for my life. All I wanted was to comfort them in what I imagined were my last moments.
I had so much to say: I wanted them to know everything would be okay and that I was no longer in pain, but the strength to speak escaped me. I was proud of them and they needed to know they had done everything possible to save me, and if I was to die it was not by their hand. They needed to hear that I would see them all again. But as what little strength I had faded, as the darkness began to surround me, I was sure that death was inevitable.
Our foot patrol began May 27, 2012, at 3 a.m., early enough to conceal us from the Taliban. The night provided us a major tactical advantage, and we took full advantage of it. Moving quietly, I could hear the faint sound of a metal detector beeping at the front of our patrol as a Marine searched for improvised explosive devices. Upon reaching our destination, we waited for the sun to rise. The area, a small village in Kajaki, Afghanistan, included a series of choke points and mud compounds that concealed us from a distance, but the threat of an IED became much greater.
The sun broke the horizon and we began our movement, slowly and methodically. The village’s silence concerned us. No kids ran in the streets, no elderly were in their compounds and there were very few livestock – a telltale sign of a nearby IED or pending ambush.
My next step changed my life forever.
I remember being thrown airborne for what felt like an eternity. Time slowed, yet my mind raced, and as I landed headfirst, a haze of confusion washed over me. I felt no pain and could see nothing for a short time. I thought I was blind. As the dust settled, I asked myself if everyone was okay, or if someone had been wounded. As I wondered why I was laying in a crater filled with sand and uplifted rocks, I noticed a red mist settling around me. It was blood from an injury, although I did not yet realize it was mine.
It was hard to breathe as I inhaled sand floating in the air like a thick fog. I wanted to stand and see what was happening to ensure my men were all right. I went to push myself up and at that moment, I gained full clarity. I felt my left forearm snap, a crack that reverberated throughout my entire body, yet still I felt no pain. As I turned to look at my arm, my tan camouflage utility uniform rapidly turning bright red, I was disturbed more by my thoughts than the sight of my muscle and bone.
After seeing my arm, I knew pain would come next. It felt as though I was standing in a fire, and excruciating pain washed over me as I tried to roll over to see my wounds. I felt so helpless in that moment. I was blind, deaf and in such agony, all while losing my voice to call for help. With every bit of strength I had left in me, I tried to stand, possibly because the thoughts of a dying man are full of clouded judgment, or maybe it was my last effort to defy what had happened. Somehow, I knelt on my right leg; as I swung around to brace with my left, I found my voice.
The pain was unbearable as my severed femur dug into the soil. I collapsed in agony and lost consciousness, yet I was still able to hear my brothers as they rushed to my side while screaming for my corpsman. As they rolled me over, I tried to look down at my legs, but my Marines stopped me. I did not need to see my legs, though, for as I looked at their faces, I saw the horrible sights they were bearing witness to — a man lying in pieces, only part of who they once knew.
As more blood left my body, I felt my grasp on life weakening. It’s the feeling of inevitable sleep, yet, more than anything, you do not want to sleep because you know there is no waking up. Lying there, I realized my own arrogance had blinded me from the fear of death. All Marines feel this way to some extent, because if we fear death, we put ourselves and more importantly the men to our left and right in danger. Fear has no place in war.
My Marines applied tourniquets below each hip, yet I focused on the squelch of my radio as my lieutenant called for my medical evacuation. The pain was stripping me of both my courage and strength. I cried out for morphine to my Navy corpsman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Chase Speed, because it felt as though I was constantly being torn apart. As the Morphine set in, I felt the pain slipping away, and with it, more of my grasp on life. Every word I spoke from then on sounded as if it was the last from a dying man.
I begged those around me to not let the remainder of my squad see my wounds. I wanted my Marines to remember me as I was and not as a mangled body. Once I was stripped of my gear, I was lifted onto a stretcher. It was then that I saw something I will never be able to forget, and I felt an emptiness that haunts me to this day.
Looking down, I saw the shredded remnants of what were once my legs. They were peppered with wounds from nails and screws, purposefully placed with the explosives. I looked over at my foot, which was still mostly intact, and stared at it intently with disgust. As a cold chill set in my body, I saw parts of me strewn across the walls, the ground, my men and myself. I could not bear the sight of it all, and it was then that I slipped away, witnessing my fight with death, succumbing to an unfamiliar darkness.
Suddenly, I was back, though. Life somehow was breathed back into me, and fear washed over me. Another IED had exploded, and I felt sand and rock brush against my body. Because I was too weak to protect my men, one of my worst fears had just come true. I began to hear unrecognizable screams, because no man screams like we did that day. As I yelled for answers, begging to know which one of my men had been injured, I instantly felt like a failure. Our entire deployment, not one of my Marines had been injured, yet here we are, less then a month before returning home and what I had been trying to prevent all along had just happened. Over the radio, I heard that it was my Afghan interpreter. He was one of the best I’d had the pleasure of working with during my deployment. He had become more than that, though. He had become my friend through several life-threatening encounters together.
As my last command as a leader of Marines, I called for my assistant squad leader, Lance Cpl. John Smolke, who was to take control of the squad in my absence. He rushed to my side as I grabbed him, pulled him close and spoke my last request with a heavy heart:
“Bring them home.”
As Lance Cpl. Smolke looked back at me, the faint sounds of a Chinook helicopter echoed from a distance. My men, still in sight, gave me the strength to keep my eyes open. I wanted to see that they were safe for as long as I could. Alongside the fear, I felt pride for having served with them, even though I had no strength to tell them. As the helicopter landed, they lifted both stretchers and sprinted to the helicopter. I looked up at their faces and saw their pain, not from fatigue but from what had just transpired. I knew that nothing said would comfort them, only seeing me live would. As they raised me into the helicopter, into the hands of Air Force medics, I took one last glance at my brothers and determined my fate with a promise.
“My fight is far from over, and I will see you all again in this life, not the next,” I said.
As the helicopter banked away, my men slowly drifted from sight. With nothing but the sounds of the helicopter’s rotors and the medics at work, I closed my eyes and repeated my pledge over and over again in my head.
Through more than 30 surgeries with five different medical teams, I beat the odds. I would not let the enemy win because I’m too stubborn to die. I underwent bilateral above-the-knee amputations, lost sensation and 40 percent of the muscle mass in my left arm, needed more than 200 stitches to close all of my wounds, and sustained countless fractures to my pelvis and a traumatic brain injury. With my will to fight, though, I determined my fate.
I firmly believe I had no right to tell Lance Cpl. Smolke to bring my Marines home because no matter how hard we try in combat, loss of life cannot always be prevented. I lived by those words wherever my brothers and I went in Afghanistan, but I had no right to put them on the shoulders of a fellow Marine. As a man of his word, though, he did, and I am thankful for that every day.
I paid a price in order to live. I lived to see my brothers come home and I lived to undergo physical therapy, allowing me to walk again with the assistance of prosthetics. I trained and completed a hand-cycling race from Paris to London over six days, covering a total of 450 miles – a race that began exactly one year after I was injured. I’ve run, I’ve surfed, I’ve done triathlons, and I’m now a certified personal trainer. But, harder than accomplishing any of these physical feats is telling this story.
Now, two years after suffering my injuries, this is my life and it is one I will continue to fight for. By coming so close to death, I have learned that every time I fall in life I have countless reasons to get back up. My life has forever been changed by the wounds of war, but wounds heal, revealing an important lesson. Every step we take in life has a purpose, even the steps that cost us something we thought we couldn’t live without.
The writer, 25, medically retired from the Marine Corps after serving five years as an infantryman. He lives in San Antonio. Follow his blog at arisefromwar.com.