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Airmen Inspired by Retired Army Amputee

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  • By Courtesy Writer: Abigail Kinder, Northern Sentry
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs

A Life Changing Story

Fleming’s story began in high school when his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. A gifted athlete, he passed up the opportunity to pursue sports to stay in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and take care of his mother. After a few unorthodox career changes while attending college, Fleming realized he needed a change and followed in the footsteps of his family members to enlist in the military. “I opted for an airborne ranger contract because I wanted to get into the special operations community, and I spent my whole career there,” he said. Little did he know that joining the military would send his life in a completely unexpected direction.

After the terrorist attack of 9/11, Fleming deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. Much of his deployment was relatively safe and by the end, he was ready to be home. “The problem is when you do it for long enough and nothing happens to you, you start get this sense of invincibility and that is a bad place to be. Don’t ever think that you’re so good that nothing can happen. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, and you have to make sure you have the right teammates to your right and to your left,” said Fleming, touching upon one of many lessons that he would give throughout the lecture.

The unit was only 18 hours away from boarding the plane and returning stateside when he received a shocking call. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was October of 2005, and we were in the gym working out and my pager went off.” Leadership notified Fleming that he would not be leaving Afghanistan in a few hours but would instead be performing a daytime mission to intercept an enemy leader in Iraq.

Fleming and his team headed out into the 127-degree desert with home in their hearts and the mission on their minds. “Most of the people on that team were already thinking about home,” he said. “Imagine that blow: you think you’re about to load an aircraft and now you’re being told ‘hey we’re going to extend you for a little longer.’”

As they neared the end of their fuel tank deep into Iraq, they made the decision to turn around and return to base, turning off the road underneath an overpass. “That one last turn would change the rest of my life. That one last turn would make me the person that I am today,” he said.

“We hit the exit ramp and we went to turn left underneath the overpass and unbeknownst to us, that was going to be the initiation of an ambush,” he recalled. An Iraqi taxicab swerved in front of the lead vehicle in the convoy, stopping the soldiers on the road. “The driver of that lead vehicle should have rammed that car and continued driving. For some reason that day, he hit the brakes. When he did that, it left my vehicle exposed under the overpass and that was the initiation.”

The opposing forces ambushed them with a storm of gunshots and hand grenades. Before Fleming could even begin to fight back, he heard the distinct sound of a grenade hitting the metal of his vehicle. Chaos ensued as the grenade detonated inside the vehicle. As he tried to gain his bearings on the situation, a second grenade detonated. Despite the screams and confusion, Fleming and his team were able to exit the vehicle and fight back. He sustained a gunshot wound in his leg soon after. “When I look down and see the gunshot wound, I realize the rest of my leg is pretty mangled up from the blast of the grenade. But what you can’t do in a gunfight is quit. What you can’t do is call a time out. Your buddies to your right and your left want to go home just as bad as you do and they’re depending on you. So, you have to do what you have to get back in the fight,” he continued.

Medics were unable to reach them due to the gunfight, so Fleming had to tie a tourniquet on himself before continuing the battle. “I remember being in the fight for a few more minutes before I started to lose consciousness from shock and loss of blood.” Fleming eventually passed out as the fight came to an end.

“That’s when my life really started to change and that’s when a dark cloud parked itself over my life and I realized I was going to be different,” remembered Fleming.

He was stabilized by medics and transported back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. After years of surgery and physical therapy, Fleming’s leg was still not the same. “I got to a point where I was like, time out. I have no quality of life, I’m miserable, I can’t run, I’m in pain… this sucks.” The remaining option? Amputation.

Unfortunately, Fleming had undergone so many surgeries in the past year that his doctor advised against putting him under general anesthesia again for fear of prolonged coma or death. After much deliberation, he made the decision to undergo the surgery with just a spinal block, meaning even though he could not feel the amputation, he would be able to smell and hear everything.

After a successful amputation, Fleming struggled to adjust to life with his new prosthetic and way of life. “The legs at that time were designed for people who were diabetic and had to have an amputation or for people who were in car wrecks, whatever it may be. The first leg they gave me, I broke within six hours of them giving it to me,” he said. He was given a more durable leg eventually and at that time, Fleming felt the call to go back into combat.

There was pushback from leadership, so to prove his abilities, he successfully completed a 5K at Lackland Air Force Base and the New York City Marathon in 2009. He then had to undergo a grueling selection alongside able-bodied individuals, who he outperformed 76% of.  He proved himself able and ended up redeploying five more times after the amputation, and even got shot twice more. Without his determination, Fleming may not have made it back into combat so many times. “If you make up your mind that you can do something, then nothing is going to stop you,” he said. But success has a way of changing a person, and not always for the better.

“You can never lose your humility. You can’t believe that you’re so good that you’re better than someone else. I got to that point, and you couldn’t tell me anything. I was pretty dang cocky and arrogant… That’s how I ran for quite some time until finally I had a reality check and I realized it wasn’t all about me. The only reason I got there and became successful was because of the people to my right and to my left. There is no singular person or thing that makes you successful in life, it’s the teammates around you. And when I embraced that and realized that was the only reason I was successful, it changed my life. I started listening more, I started trying to be more of a team player. I had been handicapping myself by the way that I was thinking,” he said.

A Lesson Learned

Why, in the aftermath of an amputation, continuously getting hurt and risking his life, did Fleming keep going back? “One, it’s because I believe in my country. Two, I believe in the mission. And most importantly, it’s because I believe in my teammates around me, and I can’t let them down. The experiences that I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve gained from something bad happening… if I can keep that from happening to one of my teammates then that’s mission success for me. It’s not because I hate what’s in front of me it’s because I love what’s behind me,” he explained.

Some of the most important lessons that Fleming learned in his military career are things that apply to everyone facing hardships, not just service members.

“You’re going to have hardships in life; you’re going to have things that happen to you that you can’t control. But the only time you’re going to become a victim is when you allow that situation to let you be a victim. You have to figure out how to keep moving along in life… because everything happens for a reason.”

“There was a point in time where I was wheeling myself around Walter Reed with no leg in a wheelchair, and I was feeling sorry for myself and depressed. All of a sudden, this wheelchair passes me in the hallway. I look up and it just so happened to be the first triple amputee. I thought to myself ‘why are you feeling sorry for yourself, Chad? You’re missing a leg below the knee. You’re still going to be very functional. This guy just passed you missing both legs above the knee, and he’s missing an arm.’ There’s always someone that has life a lot worse than you do. Figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on in life.”

“I don’t care about what color you are, what church you go to, or who you love in life. When you put all of those things aside and you accept your teammates for who they are and become non-judgmental, you become unstoppable. You become a team and a force that no one can stop because you’re accepting those teammates for who they are. There’s nothing you can’t do or achieve because you have the right people around you.”

“Be proud of what you do. Someone is looking up to you. You know what you owe them? To not let them down.”

“Nobody is guaranteed anything. If you look at the blast radius of a hand grenade, I should not be standing here today. I should be dead but I’m not. So, it wasn’t my time. Why would I do anything except enjoy every opportunity of every day and every breath that I get?”

“You want to be the best you; you want to be the one that everyone wants to be. When you do that you will walk away from your service not only with a sense of pride, but a whole other opportunity ahead of you.”

Fleming’s final and most important life lesson is this: “Not every day is a good day, but there’s good in every day.” Team Minot navigates the chaos and demands of life and every mission together, and with the right mindset, there is nothing we can’t achieve as friends, family, and brothers and sisters in arms.