By Mike Reynolds
Throughout my life, I have been fascinated with public safety. I pretended to be a firefighter as a young boy and progressed to riding on the ambulance through a high school mentorship program. After graduation, I enrolled in college, completed EMT school and began searching for a place to work. I could not get a job at any of the local ambulance services because insurance companies required everyone to be 21 years old to drive the $88,000 emergency vehicles. Having earned an associate degree and frustrated by not being 21, I joined the U.S. Army as a flight medic and was put in charge of a $5.9-million MEDEVAC Blackhawk. Four and a half years passed quickly, and I returned home to work at the fire department and on the local ambulance. I also enlisted in the Georgia National Guard. Shortly after my first deployment, I accepted a full-time job with the Guard.
In mid-2008, the opportunity to assume the role of Readiness NCO for a medical company in the Georgia Guard arose. I would be the soldier in charge of the unit and run its daily operations between drill weekends. I saw this as a chance to enhance the administrative skills I needed as I prepared to transition from patient treatment to a leadership role in my career. So, I accepted the position on the condition that I would be allowed to deploy with the unit to run the ambulance section should it go overseas in 2009. This decision would change me and my family for the rest of our lives. I would leave behind a wife and a three-year-old daughter, not knowing if I would return completely changed.
Injury and Rehabilitation
In October 2009 while responding to an emergency in Balad, Iraq, I sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I was misdiagnosed and returned to the United States where I became lost in the system. I remember only pieces of my first weeks home, including sleeping in stairwells and hallways, confused as to where I was supposed to be. Eventually, I was placed in the Wounded Warrior Program and received treatment through a chaotic and confusing system. After being found “unfit for duty” by the military, I was pushed into retirement and the medical care system for retired veterans. I moved through the system from provider to provider with months between appointments and no real solutions.
In early 2012, more than six months after retirement, my health had continued to decline, and I ended up in my hometown’s hospital. There, for the first time I began to get answers as to why my brain now worked the way it did and all the other things that had been affected. After two weeks of getting my first real answers, I was brought home in one of the same ambulances in which I had treated so many patients before my deployment. I was discharged to home health care; the insurance provided gave me that option or a nursing home.
I worked hard toward recovery with the people sent to care for me. Despite their efforts, I still felt as if I were training for the Ironman with no pool, no bicycle, and no treadmill.
(Photos courtesy of the author.)
My wife learned of a program for soldiers with brain injuries; and she, with the help of many others, began to fight to get me into the intensive treatment center. Five weeks later, I was accepted into the SHARE Program at Shepherd Center. Whereas the military’s system for my care was grossly overwhelmed and impersonal, SHARE offered an encouraging alternative. I was immersed in therapy. Instead of shortcuts, I took a journey with them down a longer, clearly marked road. I eventually swam a mile in their 25-meter pool. I rode five miles on the hardest level I could get on the bike in the gym to go on.
Because I lacked balance and had injuries that made it impossible to run, I climbed 45 flights of stairs to the top of Atlanta’s third-tallest building. All the while, I worked with many therapists and health care providers so that eventually I would be able to remember this experience and talk about it articulately enough so that my daughter could understand me.
In the SHARE program, my goal changed from just learning to function in society to returning to society and giving back. I did not want to settle for watching the fire truck race down the street; I wanted to be on it. Since my injury, the local fire departments had made me part of their family, providing consistent and reliable support. From Columbus to Chatsworth and Atlanta to Calhoun, no matter where I found myself, the local fire department was there awaiting my arrival. Whether it was dinner at the station or a quick ride around town, the fire department never forgot about me.
(Photos courtesy of the author.)
As I prepared to discharge after seven months at SHARE, a plan was developed for me to transition home and work at the Calhoun Fire Department. The city amended its charter to allow me to be the department’s first and only volunteer. Limitations will likely always prevent me from holding a position as a firefighter, but the City of Calhoun saw opportunities instead of disabilities. Each day that I am able, I get up and go spend a few hours helping out at the station. The chief continues to challenge me each day with projects.
MSG (Ret.) Mike Reynolds has been a longtime member of the fire service since the day he received his high school diploma. His career as a firefighter and Army Flight Medic has spanned the globe. He spent almost four years as the flight medic for the 4th CST/WMD at Dobbins ARB in Atlanta. He deployed in 2009 to head an ambulance service in northern Iraq. After sustaining a significant traumatic brain injury, he returned to the United States for treatment. Found “Unfit for Duty” just before he began his 18th year of military service, he was forced to retire. After multiple hospitalizations and years of cognitive, speech, vocational, physical, and rehabilitation therapy, he refused to give up. He continues his recovery in Calhoun, Georgia, through occupational therapy in the department’s training division established by Atlanta’s Shepherd Center. He is the only volunteer firefighter in the city’s department.