Meet Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman, Wounded Veteran

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman at the microphone
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman was wounded by a roadside bomb on July 7, 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq. In that attack, his left eye was destroyed, his right arm was badly damaged, and he lost his nose, his lips, and most of his teeth. “My first concern was how I was going to recover and take care of my family,” he said, since he could no longer lead soldiers in combat.

Read about Sgt. Mittman’s long and arduous journey through healing and rehabilitation to his new life as an inspirational public speaker, master’s student, and national account manager with National Industries for the Blind.

His Army Career and Army Life

I had no intention of being in the Army until I started college and decided I didn’t like the idea of my family paying for my education. So I joined the Army. The first time, I enlisted for four years, then for a series of two-year stints, and when I got to 10 years I decided to enlist for an indefinite period. It’s been my career for almost 21 years. I started out as a private, was promoted to corporal, and then to sergeant in 1993. My goal was to become a Command Sergeant Major.

What did I like about Army life? Well, I was only a kid when I joined; I had no thought of making it a career. But I’ve found the Army is a wonderful organization: the infantry is an entire male world and I like its efficiencies. There’s a great homogeneous team spirit. I loved the weapons and the physical fitness training, learning close combat, attending school, the sports (boxing and baseball), but most of all, it’s the camaraderie. When you’re in the Army, soldiers are the people you’re with. You work with them and live with them. The Army is like one big extended family.

In the early days I lived as a single soldier in the barracks for two years in Germany. I got to travel all over Europe: London, Munich (the Oktoberfest is a distant — and hazy — memory!), Amsterdam, Spain, and Berlin. It was the same when I was posted for a year to South Korea: I spent as much time as I could exploring Seoul. I was in the first Gulf War, based in Saudi Arabia for about five months, preparing to go to Iraq, then I went to Afghanistan, and after that were two additional deployments to Iraq.

Meeting Christy, His Wife

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman and wife Christy at the Tomb of the Unknowns
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman and his wife Christy
at the Tomb of the Unknowns, Veterans Day 2006

My wife, Christy, is from Indianapolis. I didn’t know her when I was growing up, but she lived three blocks away from my home. We went to the same elementary and junior high school and never knew it! I came home for 10 days after basic training and my friend brought her over to our house. We had dinner and went to a movie together.

After our date, Christy went home and told her mother I was the most arrogant guy she’d ever met. (And she still thinks that!) But I guess I did something right, because we got married in 1993. And Christy fit right into Army life. The military wives have a special camaraderie, much the same as the guys. We lived off-post, but even so, we always took our community with us. Our friends are soldiers and their wives.

Army Life After 9/11

Army life changed completely after 9/11. Every soldier knew they were much closer to being deployed and being in armed conflict. Not every soldier wants to go into conflict, but it’s usually less of a shock than you’d think, because this is what you’ve been trained to do. But when you first enter live combat you’re naturally apprehensive and cautious. I’ve been on four combat tours in my career: one in Afghanistan and three in Iraq.

I was sent to Afghanistan in March 2002. I was there for six months and spent time flying in and around Kandahar and Kabul. I enjoyed Afghanistan, except for the crazy heat! Afghanistan today is a totally different story.

When I returned to the States, I went to senior Non-Commissioned Officer’s school and was then posted to Iraq. This was in March 2003, during the initial invasion of Baghdad. I was there for a year and also spent time up in the northwest part of the country. It wasn’t as bad as people believed it to be. We had long days and a lot of travel as we tried to get established. We were always on guard, always aware of our surroundings.

Life in Afghanistan and Iraq

Master Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman at the podium
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman speaking at the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center, May 2009

I believe there’s an element in every society that believes, or at least tries to believe, that there’s no evil. Well I’ve seen evil, real evil, and I’ve seen it up close. But I think it’s important to have a sense of balance. I found the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to be like everyone else, in wanting their families to be safe and secure.

We all have our own sense of patriotism, but I think there’s a misunderstanding about the common people in those places; most just want a normal everyday life, much like the rest of us. The extremists are always a very small percentage of the population. I found the people I met in Afghanistan to be very friendly. (Yes, it’s true I was carrying a gun!)

There were big differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan had virtually no infrastructure. It was what I imagined life must have been like in the 1890s. Iraq was more like living in the 1950s: better infrastructure, better education, and the people were more literate. The views toward women seemed about the same, though. Very restrictive. I was surprised to learn that Iraq has a large Christian population of about 800,000.

It was interesting when we went on patrol. Most of the houses there are in compounds surrounded by high walls. You don’t get a sense of open space as you do in a neighborhood in the States. There are narrow alleys everywhere and most houses have multiple stories. Quite often I’d see women standing at the gates of their homes and some would give us the sign of the cross. I don’t know why they did this — perhaps to show us they were Christians?

But regardless of ethnicity or religion, many of the people were very friendly. They’d welcome us into their homes and it wasn’t unusual to take off our gear, have tea with them, and converse with the family patriarch through our interpreters. (Would you believe one of my interpreters contacted me recently through Facebook?)

Further north, especially in the Kurdish areas, people were very friendly. It was interesting: one village would be composed entirely of Arabs and the next would be entirely Kurdish. As time passed, it grew much quieter. We’d moved from a period of combat to a period of stabilizing operations. It was a big “thought shift,” however, because each period required a very different approach. Life was much easier when we shifted to stabilization and brought in local leaders and sheiks to help us organize and restore communities.

The Attack: July 7, 2005

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman receiving an award
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman receives an award from Col. Craig S. Cotter at the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center, May 2009

My third visit in 2005 was different again. It was hot and heavy combat and we had a lot of trouble with roadside bombs. I was part of an eight-man transition team and served as adviser to an Iraqi battalion. They’d all been well-trained. Whatever the Iraqi commander said, I participated in, even though I might have advised differently. The Iraqi soldiers were quite protective of me, but again, that’s part of their culture: I was a guest in their country. I also carried the radio, which was the main lifeline for bringing in the big guns if we ran into trouble.

Then, on July 7, 2005, I was the one who ran into trouble. On that day, I was driving because one of our team members had been injured the week before (which I was told later). I’d volunteered to meet and bring my Iraqi soldiers back to our base for weapons training. We set off in two vehicles: a total of five Americans and one Iraqi interpreter. I really don’t remember anything about that day, except what I’ve been told.

Even now, five years later, my last memory is of July 4, 2005, which was three days before my accident. On that day, I was sitting on top of my Humvee, watching fireworks with other American and Iraqi soldiers. During my time as advisor to the Iraqis, I’d taken time to read the history of their country (I did the same in Afghanistan) and we’d sit together and eat and talk about the ancient heritage of Iraq. I was always trying to learn more. During our July 4th celebration, it was our turn to tell the Iraqis what that special day meant to us and the reason for all the fireworks.

Then came July 7, the same day as the London bombings (known as 7/7 in England). On that day in London, four Muslim suicide bombers attacked the center of London’s public transportation system. Three bombs exploded within fifty seconds of each other on three underground trains, and a fourth exploded on a double-decker bus during the morning rush hour, killing 52 people and injuring around 700.

On July 7 in Iraq, I was driving down a Baghdad highway off-ramp and drove directly into an all-out attack. One of those lethal roadside bombs was detonated during the attack. The bomb sent a projectile through my six-inch-thick bullet-proof window and it kept going and came out the other side. I was lucky I wasn’t decapitated! We were the second vehicle and took the brunt of the blast.

I was immediately knocked unconscious and the vehicle went down into a canal. The rear of the vehicle was up on the bank and I sat, unconscious, chest-deep in water. My teammates tried to contact me on the radio; there were some mortar rounds fired and then the area was secured. A nearby patrol, with medics, was almost immediately on the scene and they were followed by a helicopter.

I’m told that within 30 minutes of being hit I was on an operating table in Baghdad. I was then moved to northern Iraq for another operation, and then to Germany. Within 72 hours, I was being operated on in Washington, D.C.

His Injuries Were Severe

My left eye was destroyed, I’d lost my nose, my lips, most of my teeth, and badly damaged my right arm. I woke up a month later, on August 8th.

The day I got hit, they called my wife, Christy, who happened to be in Indiana with her parents. She was told I’d been injured and that I was listed as a “VSI,” meaning Very Seriously Injured. The next category is “Dead.” She left within two days to be with me at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where I was in intensive care for about a month. My first memory is of her talking to me and I couldn’t understand why she was in Baghdad because my last memory was of July 4th and the fireworks! By this time I think I’d had about fifteen operations. I couldn’t speak or walk.

When I woke up, Christy tried to explain to me what had happened. The bad part was that I’d fall asleep and not remember what she’d told me, and she’d have to repeat everything again. I remember running my hand over my face. My nose was gone. At no point in time was I surprised about what had happened to me, because being in the military you come to terms with it.

The only day I asked “Why me?” was when they told me my vision was gone. My left eye was destroyed, my right eye had permanent scarring, and I had just a little peripheral vision remaining. I was 35 years old and I thought “What am I going to do?” My first concern was how I was going to recover and take care of my family. “How am I going to make a living?” I asked myself. “I can’t lead soldiers in combat any more.”

His Wife Christy’s Support

The Mittman family at home
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman, his wife Christy, and their two daughters

My wife, being the angel she’s always been, was also visiting another soldier who’d been wounded. He was a close friend of mine but he died shortly after I’d been told my vision loss was permanent. I was devastated. I cried, which I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Then it dawned on me: I was lucky — very lucky. I was still here with my children and my wife, but my friend wasn’t. I promised my wife that I wouldn’t be down and that I would move forward. The death of my friend taught me a lesson, and I’ve thanked him many times for that.

Christy and I have been married for 17 years and I spent quite a bit of that time gone. I think my injuries were a lot harder on my wife and my children than on me. They didn’t change, but I definitely did. I could no longer be a soldier.

My wife is incredible. My youngest daughter was born while I was in Afghanistan. The day after I was injured, we broke ground on a new home, so in addition to being with me, Christy was also making sure the home was built right, and was taking care of the kids. I have two girls, now 8 and 13 years old. The youngest has no memory of me prior to being injured. They’re both something else: extremely accepting and don’t have prejudices that can build up over a lifetime.

When I was injured, Christy spent six weeks in D.C., while the kids remained in Indiana. I was worried about how the girls would react to me because I was badly swollen and scarred. Christy got the advice of the Army psychiatrist and had photographs made of me prior to being hurt and then after.

Seeing “Daddy” for the First Time After the Accident

Instead of our kids coming to the hospital, the girls first went to Christy’s hotel. They’d never spent any time away from their mother before. In the hotel, she sat down with them and my in-laws and showed them my before and after photographs. (I look 100% better now than then.) My wife explained how Daddy had been in a bad accident. They cried together as she explained that they were now going to see me in the hospital and that I looked different than I did before.

The older one’s reaction to the more recent photographs was “That’s okay, I still see Daddy.” The little one, at the time, was only three. They called the hospital from the hotel and said they were on their way over. I had the nurses get me up because I didn’t want the kids to see me laying down in bed. I heard them coming down the hallway … I heard them stop … and then they came into my room. Their acceptance was almost immediate: I was just “Dad.” I think it was at that point that I really started to heal and was okay.

Surgery and Rehabilitation

I returned home for a month in the middle of September, 2005. Then for the next couple of years I was back and forth every 1-3 months between Indiana and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 2008, I came back to Indiana permanently and now get whatever surgery I need here.

But just recently I put a stop to any more surgery. I’ve had about 40 operations, including some pretty innovative stuff. One journalist described my face as “… a jigsaw of reconstructions. His nose is fashioned from his rib cartilage, a forearm flap and forehead skin. His jaw was rebuilt with wires; his cheeks with metal plates. Dental implants will add teeth.”

The surgeons said they would operate on me forever or until I raised my hand and said I’m done. So I just recently raised my hand! No more! They’d rebuilt my nose, I now have all my teeth, and they’d rebuilt my lips (but my top lip still needs more work). I can eat okay, but I drink through a straw, including coffee.

I can now travel by myself, which I do a lot. I was interviewed in October, 2006 on the PBS NewsHour by Susan Dentzer, their Health Correspondent, and she saw exactly how things were when she said, “Bit by bit, over the next several years, Mittman’s new face will come together. For now, his soul seems intact, surrounded as he is by his loving family.”

Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

SUSAN DENTZER: Mittman’s wife, Christy, recalls what happened when she first saw her husband at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

CHRISTY MITTMAN: The nurse sat there with me the whole first night, and he told me — he said “You know,” he said, “30 years ago, like in Vietnam,” he said, “more than likely your husband would not have made it off the battlefield.” He said, “But he’s here,” and he goes, “I’ve seen it. They will get him looking almost perfectly the way that he did before he got hurt.” And I called them liars.

SUSAN DENTZER: What would you call them today?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Angels from God; that’s what I would call them, because, you know, he didn’t have a nose three months ago, and he does now.

DR. JOE ROSEN, Plastic Surgeon: Look out into the future would be to readdress this area.

SUSAN DENTZER: One of those whom Christy considers an angel is Mittman’s plastic surgeon, Joe Rosen. He normally practices at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire but was called in by Walter Reed as a consultant on Mittman’s and others’ cases.

Rosen talked with Mittman before one recent surgery.

DR. JOE ROSEN: So when we approach someone like you, the reason it’s complicated is because, not only do we have to make you a nose, but we also have to build a foundation for the nose. So we needed a piece of bone, and you can feel down here that piece of bone so that we can rest your nose on it.

So where we got that piece of bone, in your case, was we got it here from your forearm. And we took that piece of bone off, we actually cut it and put it in your face, and then wrapped the skin around it to create lining in your mouth and also a foundation, your upper lip, and also lining for your nose.

Blind Rehabilitation Training

A year after I was hurt, I started a five-week initial blind rehabilitation training program at the Hines Veterans’ Administration (VA) Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to attending Hines, I met Tom Miller, Executive Director of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) in D.C., which is an organization of blinded veterans helping blinded veterans. Tom used to walk up and down the wards looking for people who had lost their vision. Through Tom I met other guys like him who’d been blinded in active duty. I talked with these guys and learned what was possible.

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman receives a key to the city
Anniston, Alabama Mayor Gene Robinson presents Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman with a key to the city, December 2009

I’m the kind of guy who if I have a problem, I confront it. If I need a piece of equipment to accomplish something, I go get it. I now know what I have to do. Rehabilitation was part of what I had to do. It was at Hines that I learned how to use a white cane, and a few adaptive techniques in daily living. I drew the line at making peanut butter sandwiches, however — I thought there were more important priorities.

Prior to the accident, I was right-handed but that arm was so badly injured in the accident that I now just use it to write my signature. So by putting bits of Velcro on the home keys I taught myself how to type with one hand — my left — and without using vision. When I returned to Hines I focused on learning adaptive technology. (I’ve learned that adaptive technology kind of evens things out.) I learned how to use the GPS system and that helps me get around.

Prior to going to Hines, I would never let go of my wife’s arm and rarely ventured too far away from her. But Hines gave me the confidence I needed to travel on my own in the airport, cross busy intersections — you name it. I had no problem using a white cane. I use it in public all the time, and that’s good because I travel a lot.

I use ZoomText from Ai Squared, a closed-circuit television (CCTV), and several digital magnifiers. Because of my hand injury, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software to dictate to the computer. I use an Amazon Kindle to read the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers on a daily basis, but ZoomText is invaluable because it also reads documents to me. I also have scanners that speak the text to me. You name it, Hines VA covered everything.

Transitions and the Future

Last summer I started graduate school at Ball State University in Indiana. I hadn’t really thought about graduate school until I was hurt. But with my injuries, I felt the more education I had, the better my chances for employment would be. I’m pursuing an M.A. degree in Executive Development for Public Service and I should finish next May. I’ve just started an internship with National Industries for the Blind (NIB). They hired me as a national account manager, which involves me handling all of their civilian government agency accounts.

Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman at 2009 National Association of Blind Veterans convention
Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman (right) and Captain Ivan Castro (left) at the 2009 convention of the National Association of Blind Veterans

Because I’m now able to travel independently, I also do a lot of speaking engagements around the country. Most of them are about my personal experiences, my recovery, my family, and my community. I was used to leading in the Army, so I have no problem with public speaking, although my audiences today are a little different from what they used to be. Now they’re groups of school children and industrial conventions where there might be up to 1,000 people in attendance. This is my first real job where I go to an office every day.

It’s been a five-year process and I’m still in transition. My aims for the future are a little hazy. For now I want to work full time with NIB and maybe pursue a strong interest of mine in public policy or maybe politics. I don’t necessarily want to run for office but I do plan to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Damn, when I decide to go for something, I go! What’s the alternative? You have to be proactive. I set objectives, but the main challenge is to select options for meeting them. There’s a solution to almost everything — you just have to find it. The great motivator is my family. I’m where I am today because of my wife, Christy. Who knows what the future holds?