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From Burns to Breathing

(photo credit click here)

By Jose “Joe” Lopez, 473 Cavalry, 82nd Airborne Division (Retired)

After a 15-month deployment in northeast Afghanistan near where it borders Pakistan, it was finally time for me to go back home to Texas. My commanding officer told me to stay an extra three days because someone always gets injured right before a group goes back to the States. When I agreed, little did I know that this person would be me.

On the first of those three extra days, I’d already packed up all my gear. Most of the other guys were out on a mission and our base was almost deserted. I remembered that the Christmas packages had arrived late this year, as they usually do when you’re deployed overseas, and that this had left a giant pile of cardboard boxes. A guy in the nearby village usually collected our trash, but his truck was broken again. So I decided to take care of it. When I got to the motor pool, I found a private who offered to drive me into town to burn the boxes. We couldn’t simply stuff them in a dumpster in case members of ISIS or other insurgents got hold of them and started mailing bad things to our families.

When we reached the fire pit, the private stayed in the Hummer while I began unloading the boxes. Once I’d put enough in the pit, I lit a match, dropped it in, and watched the flames creep up the cardboard. A few of the local kids were loitering nearby. Once I’d lit the fire they got curious and came over to me. I started talking with this child, who helped his Dad bring fuel and other supplies to the base and had learned a little English from me and the other guys (including a few phrases he probably shouldn’t have). While we were going back and forth, a couple of the other teenagers clambered on top of the Hummer. I dismissed this as kids just being kids, but the private got spooked. As he was yelling to them to get down, he accidentally knocked the gearstick into drive, and the 5,200-pound vehicle lurched forward. I instinctively dove sideways, shoving the child out of the way. He was safe, but before the private could put the Hummer back in park, it knocked me into the fire pit.

In a haze of pain, shock, and flames, I hauled my way of the pit in a semi-conscious stupor. I was aware enough to look down at the grenades and ammo clips on my belt and, fearing that they’d explode, tried frantically to detach them. For most of the year, the Afghanistan sand is as fine as powder and I would’ve been able to put out the fire tearing at my clothes by rolling in it. But writhing around on the hard-packed winter ground did me no good. The fire continued consuming my body until the private reached me, patted it out, and ripped off my charred uniform. He stuck me with morphine, but it did little to ease my screaming and yelling.

As he dragged me into the Hummer the pain was even worse. We raced to the medical station and before I knew it in my delirious, opiated state, I was being flown to Bagram Air Base in Germany. Once the doctors there had stabilized me, I was sent on to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam in Houston. Being wheeled out of a transport plane on a stretcher with burns covering 36 percent of my body was not exactly how I’d imagined my homecoming.

82 Days Later

I seemed to be getting a little better for a while. Then things got a whole lot worse. Both my lungs collapsed, and one of the three times I coded, I was technically dead for six minutes. Somehow, whether by the skill of the surgeons, the grace of God, or both, they brought me back to life – though not until someone had written my death certificate. Realizing how grave my condition was, they put me in a medically-induced coma. I woke up 82 days later with no idea where I was or what was happening, and started shouting. My main doctor looked confused and ushered everyone else out of the room. “What is it, Doc?” I asked. He told me that he couldn’t understand how I was able to speak – let alone yell – because they had cut my vocal chords while giving me a tracheotomy. Once the scan came back it showed that somehow my throat had healed itself and given me back the power of speech. However, the doctor warned me that because of extensive damage to my legs and spine, I’d probably never walk again. Refusing to accept that, I resolved at that moment to get out of that bed and back on my own two feet, no matter how much time or pain it required.

“Do you have any questions or comments?” Doc asked.

“No questions,” I replied, “But I’m going to walk again.”

He looked at me skeptically.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I can feel my right foot already.”

“With all the damage to your nervous system, that’s impossible.”

“Well maybe it should be, but I can feel it.”

As we got deeper into my prognosis over the next couple of days, my doctor also told me I would probably not be able to breathe on my own without oxygen because only 30 percent of my lungs were undamaged. Again, this didn’t sit well with me, and I was determined to breathe for myself. There was talk of a lung transplant, but I told my doctor, “I’m going to make do with the lungs I already have.”   

Finding My Way Back

Despite my determination to get back to full health and capacity, the next year was the biggest struggle of my life. The first few times I tried to stand up I started hyperventilating and then passed out. And once I was able to get up, I could only take a couple of steps before collapsing. But I worked at it day after day, and nine months later I walked out of Brooke Army Medical Center on my own steam.

At this point, I still had to lug an oxygen tank with me everywhere I went. And it was one built for a baby because my lung capacity was so low. But just like with my legs, I was resolved to ditch the tanks and the cables and start breathing independently. So I just tried to build up my strength little by little. The more my legs were able to give me, the better my lungs did. I still had trouble breathing but eventually was able to turn a walk into a jog and, eventually, a jog into a run. I also started working out again. It never came easy, but when you’ve been trained to be a warrior, you know how to fight.

Over the past 11 years I’ve had more than 50 surgeries, most of the skin grafts to try and heal my legs, which were burned more severely than any other part of my body, other than maybe my lungs. That’s just the physical component of my ongoing recovery. The mental and emotional struggles I’ve had since that fateful day – January 3rd, 2008 – have in some ways been just as tough to handle. When I was still in Afghanistan, my wife decided she wanted a divorce. Then there were the flashbacks to my accident when I relived the screaming and the smell of my flesh burning off my body.

To try and deal with my issues, I started drinking, first a little and then a lot. I also fell back in with some people from my past who were far from a good influence and started using drugs. Meth, cocaine, heroin – if you can name it, I probably took it. It got to a point where I was so desperate for a way out that I even attempted suicide. I loaded a bullet in my Glock pistol and pointed the barrel at my head, wanting to end it all. Closing my eyes, I pulled the trigger. Nothing. Somehow, the gun didn’t go off. It was another miracle.

But despite getting another chance at life, I was soon back in the cycle of no sleep, drugs, and alcohol. It eventually started to compromise my readiness for my skin grafts. My psychologist saw that I was at the end of my rope, and when I showed up for my next appointment, he was there in the room with my surgeon, my commanding officer, and a whole group of people who wanted to help me. I guess you call that an intervention. I’d done so much to get my lungs and legs working again, but now I needed someone to fix the brokenness in the rest of my life. But like many addicts, I wouldn’t go quietly and pleaded with them to let me spend Christmas with my family.  

Thankfully, they knew this was just an excuse, and wouldn’t give me the easy way out. “You have black spots on your kidneys and you’ve popped every drug test,” my doctor told me. “You have to stop this now.” Finally, I relented and checked into rehab in December 2009. While I had one brief relapse, I’ve now been drug and alcohol-free since I was released. It saved my life.

Just Breathe

While I was continuing my recovery, a friend and fellow veteran told me about this organization called CAMO that helps veterans with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), amputations, and other physical and mental conditions resulting from combat. I wasn’t too sure about the yoga and breath work, but skiing and snowboarding in Aspen sure sounded like fun. I talked with John at CAMO and we made an instant connection. He kindly offered to fly my wife and I out to join the next winter retreat.

Before heading out, I did some testing in an oxygen tank to make sure my damaged lungs could handle going from sea level to 8,000 feet. I did just fine with the simulation elevation, but when I got up into the mountains it was a different story. The second night I felt so short of breath that I had a panic attack. Fortunately, I remembered what our instructor, Emily, had shown me about using my breathing to change my physical and emotional state the day before. That really helped for a little while, but when I stopped controlling my inhales and exhales I was gasping again. My wife remembered that one of the other ex-soldiers had an oxygen tank with her, and she went and woke her up. A lot of people wouldn’t like being disturbed in the middle of the night, but she was totally cool about it and brought the tank and mask to my room.

It helped for a while but again, once I stopped using the tank, it was back to square one. So off we went to an urgent care clinic nearby. They found that I had edema, which was the root of the issue, and that my oxygen saturation was only 70 percent. As much as I was looking forward to hitting the slopes the next day, I couldn’t. And I was going to end up with a pretty big bill as well. Luckily, the clinic had a compassion fund that my doctor told me would cover the cost of my admission and stay. Though I was really bummed out to not get to join my new friends in the snow, it wasn’t a complete loss. Once I was discharged from the clinic, I went back to CAMO to find that they’d got me a cake and everyone sang Happy Birthday. It was really touching to see how much everyone cared – not just my fellow veterans but also John, Emily, and the rest of the CAMO team. To spend that evening with them and my wife in a beautiful spot in Colorado made it one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had.


Learning Lessons for Life

But an even better present was the lasting friendships and lessons that I took home with me. Ever since the accident, I’ve struggled with anger and it has felt like my emotions just run away with me sometimes. The breathing techniques Emily demonstrated allow me to regain control and settle down when I’m stressed or frustrated. I combine that with prayer and meditation. Even when I’m in a situation where I can’t get up and take a walk, which I find very calming, I can always access my breath and use it to get out of my own head.

The same is true when I’m rucking with a veterans group from Centers for the Intrepid. I’ve been training with them since last October and gradually building up my mileage. Today we went for 20 miles. Before I went to CAMO there’d be times when I was working out that I’d get out of breath because of my baby-like lungs and I’d panic. But with what Emily taught me, I’m able to stay calm and get the air I need to keep moving.  

In a few weeks, I’m going to tackle the White Sands Marathon in New Mexico, something I never would’ve thought I’d be capable of when I was lying in the hospital hearing my doctor tell me I was never going to walk again. Going to CAMO was life-changing, not least because the thing I’d been struggling with for all these years is breathing, and here’s this coach showing me how to make the best of what I’ve got. I’m also training to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America and am building my business Dogtags Barbecue, whose motto is, “Veterans continuing to serve.” I may never heal from my wounds, but as long as I can breathe and put one foot in front of the other, I’m going to be just fine.  

As told to Phil White

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