When 1st Sgt. Mike Martinez U.S. Army (Ret.) enters a room, most people might not realize they are in the presence of a two-time Purple Heart and Bronze Star Iraqi war hero. A man who has sacrificed the ease and normalcy of everyday living for a lifetime of memory loss and hospital visits. And while he depends on the aid of a cane to stabilize his movements, it’s not until you start talking to Mike that you get a real sense of the extent of his injuries.
“When I got hurt, I reached down deep because I knew I was going to be sent home. I did everything I could to stay with my men but I was ordered to go home and it was the hardest thing for me. But I knew I wasn’t right and I’d be putting my men in danger.”Mike may have left the battlefield but he is still in the battle. Every day he struggles with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He suffers from severe headaches, extreme eye sensitivity to light, short-term memory loss and delayed speech. As Mike points out, he’s not the same man he was before his injuries. But he’s reached a point in his healing where he can look himself in the mirror and say “This is who you are, deal with it.” And that is exactly what he’s doing, and what he hopes to remind other service men and women coping with the effects of PTS and TBI. To do that Mike has set out on the road to help the USO promote our latest PSA campaign ‘Portraits,’ which strives to educate the American public on a struggle that faces more than 300,000 returning service heroes – the invisible wounds of war.
You see, Mike served two tours in Iraq and on two separate occasions he was hit by IED blasts, the second of which cracked his vehicle in half and caused the severest of his injuries, which have now lead to his treatment for both PTS and TBI. When you hear Mike tell his story, as I did one night at dinner, there isn’t any anger or bitterness, no regret for his sacrifices or the challenges he now faces. There is only a deep sense of dedication and pride in being an American. He doesn’t regret his service, only that the injuries he suffered prevented him from completing his mission.
First stop on Mike’s journey to educate the American public was Los Angeles, California, which was also where my path crossed with Mike and his wife, Maria. The USO hosted a screening of our PSA at the Creative Artists Agency for the LA community and the Martinez’s graciously agreed to come out and share their story. Like the 50 or so people who gathered to hear their story, I was more than moved by it…I was changed. In front of a room full of strangers, Mike talked about the explosion that sent him home. He recalled being handed a phone so that he could call his wife and say goodbye. Everyone, including Mike, believed that he wasn’t going to make it. Thousands of miles away, severely injured and near death he called his wife and told her, “It’s been a good ride. Take care of our boys.”
But Mike was lucky, and today he is a husband and proud father of three boys – two of whom are planning to follow their Dad into the US Army – and a healing hero fighting his way back to living. While the wounds he sustained in battle may not have claimed his life, the victory of his survival is a bittersweet one. The simplest of tasks are now much harder for Mike. He depends heavily on his family for their support, patience and understanding. His wife is constantly by his side, reminding him of important dates and taking him to his many doctor appointments. She understands that the man who came home from war is not the same one who went away. And for that, Mike counts her among one of his greatest heroes. While he knows he’ll never be that man again, he also knows that every moment he has with his family is a gift.
If you ask Mike why he does it, what drives him to share his story, his reasoning is pretty simple. He wants his brothers and sisters in harm’s way to know that it’s okay to get help, it’s okay to talk about PTS and TBI and above all that they are not alone. And to America he says:
“Think of freedom as a wall and standing on that wall is always a soldier. Americans should pray that soldier never falls.”
But the truth is sometimes they do fall, and an even greater truth is, there is always another soldier ready to step up and guard that wall and we owe them so much more than our thanks. Our troops need to know that we are there for them and their families when they need us.
PTS and TBI are realities of war, and as Americans we owe it to our men and women in uniform to get educated and build awareness about this growing crisis. To learn more about ‘Portraits’ and the invisible wounds of war please visit us online at www.usoinvisiblewounds.org. It only takes a moment to acknowledge a lifetime of sacrifice. – Sharee Posey, USO Sr. Communications Specialist