Fog of War

By Mike Goranson, Chapter Captain – Chicago

I still remember the first time I saw Old Glory gliding along the lakefront path in Chicago. I was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago and living downtown. It was summertime, and I was near the lake, people watching and enjoying a break from my studies. That’s when I saw it. The flag was being carried by a group of red-shirted Eagles, members of the amazing veteran non-profit Team Red, White & Blue shirt. It’s not every day you see a group of people running with the flag—a symbol of freedom paid for by generations of brave men and women. I was one of them. I shed my blood for my country, and I still have the scars to prove it.

As I watched the group run by, I remember looking down at my bum foot and telling myself that I would never again be what I once was. My right foot is completely numb—I have tibial nerve damage. That night at the lakefront, I didn’t think I would ever be able to run again. At the same time, the pity I felt for myself was tempered by the gratitude I felt. I still have my foot. There was a time where the doctors weren’t so sure if I would be able to keep it. The severity of the palsy in my foot was just too severe, they thought.

I was shot in the lower right leg in November 2004, near a forward operating base in Ar Ramadi, Iraq. I was standing outside my gun truck, blocking a T-intersection while the rest of my unit was conducting a door-to-door patrol behind me. I was holding my automatic machine gun, with a 9mm pistol on my thigh. The only other Marine with me was my good friend, who was manning the big machine gun—the .50 Cal—on top of our truck. We were well trained and thought we knew what we were doing.

Then we were ambushed.

The distinctive sound of 7.62 rounds fired from an AK-47 ripped through the air. I was completely exposed outside the truck, so I instinctively dove for cover behind the truck. I could hear nothing but loud cracks as the rounds impacted all around, hitting the wall behind me, my truck, and the street in front of me. The insurgents who engaged us were lucky—one of the rounds they sprayed at us ricocheted off the street and caught me in my ankle. The 7.62 tracer round entered one inch above the top of my boot, on the outside of my calf. Once inside my flesh, it tumbled and blew out the inside of part of my leg. I knew it was a tracer round because I saw the round burning red on the ground. I also knew that the damage it had done was bad and that I would soon bleed out if I didn’t put some pressure on it. That’s when the training kicked in. I dropped my machine gun and used one hand to apply pressure to my leg. With the other hand I called in a medivac.

While I was trying to stop the bleeding, my gunner opened up on the enemy with the .50 Cal, which suppressed their fire and allowed me a little time to get squared away behind the truck. I still had my 9mm pistol on my hip; I knew I could use it to defend myself if I had to. Lucky for the both of us, however, three of our unit’s trucks arrived on the scene and continued to return fire as I was loaded into one of the trucks. I remember jumping on my one good foot, and with the help of the Doc, I made it to safety.

That’s where things get a little fuzzy. The images I do remember, though, will be with me for the rest of my life. Of that I’m sure. I remember being worried that my unit would be ambushed while attempting to medivac me to the main base. I also remember being in excruciating pain. And when the Doc opened up the blouse to my cammies, I remember seeing what seemed like a bucket of blood pour out. Watching the Doc apply a tourniquet was the last thing I remember with any clarity.

The doctors performed surgery on my leg while I was still in Iraq. Their main goal was simply to stop the bleeding and keep the wound clean. I don’t remember much from that time—mostly because of all the pain meds they gave me. One thing I do remember, however, was right before I was put under for the surgery, I could hear mortars dropping nearby. I was lying there, completely helpless. Then I slowly passed out.

From there, I was sent to Germany, where I underwent more surgery. I remember a little more from that time, but not much. After spending a little time in Germany and being deemed “stable,” I headed to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. My final stop was Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

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I’m originally from Elk Grove Village, Illinois, and when I returned there for the first time after being wounded, I was instantly put on a pedestal. It was a little unnerving. I was being treated like a superhuman war hero simply because I had been shot. The second I got off the plane in Chicago, in fact, a crew from the NBC station was there and followed me all the way to my house. The mayor of Elk Grove even personally thanked me for my service. Everywhere I went people either already knew or wanted me to tell my story. It was a true hero’s gala.

After those few weeks of leave, I went back to San Diego to be with my unit. I was so excited to see them, though part of me felt guilty that I had not been there with them for the rest of the deployment. Once they returned, my excitement turned to a feeling of horror. I was blindsided by a story a good friend of mine told me. He said that after I had left Iraq, the gunner who was with me that day I was shot—my friend—told the other guys in my unit that I had abandoned him when we got ambushed. He said I threw my machine gun on the ground and gave up. My heart dropped and I couldn’t breathe; it was both numbing and overwhelming to hear such a vile thing said about me. Still to this day it’s hard for me to describe just how painful it was for me to hear that.

The fact that he thought so little of me tore me apart both mentally and physically. It’s a burden I’ve carried with me every day since. It may sound clichéd to some, but in combat the only thing that matters is the guy to your right and the one to your left. As a Marine and as an Infantryman, I was prepared to die for my gunner if need be, and I knew he was prepared to do the same. We don’t joke about things like that the way some civilians might. In Iraq, that was the only certainty we were afforded. By claiming that I had abandoned him, my gunner was essentially saying that I wasn’t prepared to die for him—that I had betrayed him and everything we as Marines stand for. Sadly, my gunner died in a motorcycle crash shortly after returning from Iraq, and he and I never had a chance to talk about what happened that day in Ar Ramadi.

After I was medically discharged from the Marine Corps, the only way I could think to suppress the shame I felt was with the pain killers I had been prescribed. It didn’t take me long to start abusing those meds, gulping them down by the handful with ample amounts of alcohol. Without the Corps and the brotherhood that comes with it, I had no direction, no purpose. I quickly put on weight, using my injury as an excuse. I was floating through life like a rudderless raft on a winding river.

That day I saw Old Glory being carried along the lakefront path in Chicago, I decided to sign up for Team RWB. I’m not sure exactly what prompted my decision, but I knew in the back of my head that I had to do something to pull myself out of the hole I had dug. The very first Team RWB event I attended was an indoor rock climbing clinic followed by a social at Buffalo Wild Wings. It took every ounce of courage I had to break out of my comfort zone and attend. Like many of us today, I have a very tight inner circle of friends and family, but I didn’t feel very comfortable outside that circle. That’s what social media has done to us—we are closer than ever to our inner circle, but most of us are deeply disconnected from those around us. During the event, I was struck by how many amazing and inspirational people were there—people who genuinely cared about me and wanted to get to know me. I was hooked.

My injury had held me back for too long, and it was the love and support I found in Team RWB that helped me set new physical goals that I would have never thought I could reach. I began pushing my body—and my mind—with others who were in a similar boat. We had all found that missing rudder. We were in it together because we all knew from experience that we couldn’t do it alone. There’s an old African proverb that I think perfectly sums up what we at Team RWB have discovered: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Joining the Marine Corps was the best decision I’ve ever made. The Corps forced me to become stronger both mentally and physically. But when my fellow Marines discounted my service, I lost something. I didn’t feel strong anymore. I felt worthless. Team RWB saved me. Team RWB reminded me how strong I really am. Team RWB has helped me get back to the man I was before I was shot. I realize now that without the Marine Corps, without all the pain and suffering I have survived, and without Team RWB, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. I’m in a much better place now.

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About ten months ago, I was asked to be the Captain of the Chicago Chapter of Team RWB. I humbly accepted the invitation because I want nothing more than to pay it forward. I was once lost, but now I’m found, and it was seeing Old Glory being carried by a group of amazing human beings that was my beacon of light—my savior. As a Chapter Captain, I prefer to lead by example. I have made it my mission each day to help others who are struggling on their own journey home. I want those I help to turn around and do the same. Now every Monday evening, you can find me running along the lakefront path with Old Glory whipping proudly in the wind. I have become the beacon. Team RWB can save, and it’s my hope each time we set out that someone new will see what we’re doing and be drawn to us. We know there are people out there who need us. If that’s you, just remember that we’re here, and we’re ready for you. The world isn’t such a lonely place when you fly with Eagles!