Spirit of service guides Marines dealing with physical, mental wounds
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 24, 2016
Blinded, slumped next to his crumpled chopper at the foot of Iraq’s Najaf cemetery, Stephen “Slade” Mount cupped his gunshot face to keep it from oozing into the street.
He knew he’d never pilot a Huey again. But he never could’ve predicted on that brutal day in 2004 that he’d recover sight in one eye, carve out a long career in the Marine Corps and come to think — in a strange but comforting way — of his terrible wound as a kind of gift.
“I actually became a better Marine officer,” the Southern California native said.
For the past six months, Lt. Col. Mount, 43, has commanded Wounded Warrior Battalion West’s glistening $75 million campus at Camp Pendleton, plus satellite detachments at the San Diego Naval Medical Center and the Marines’ air station at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
In the dwindling days of December, as the barracks grow quieter with the sick and injured jetting home on holiday leave, Mount said Christmas can be a lonely season for those left behind. But he pointed to a pair of combat veterans — Master Sgt. Howard Tait and Staff Sgt. Danielle Pothoof — as Marines who help raise morale, in part because their suffering helped to make them compassionate servant leaders.
All devout Christians, these three Marines see Christmas as more than the day to honor the birth of Christ, the man they believe to be the son of God. It also reminds them that their savior’s life and suffering should guide their lives year-round.
“Yeah, my dream was to be a pilot and I was good at being a pilot. And then my dream was taken from me. I had that realization that I wasn’t going to be a pilot anymore. I could get out of the Marine Corps, or I could continue to serve. So I continued to serve,” Mount said.
A hard day in Iraq
On Aug. 5, 2004, Mount wheeled his Bell UH-1N Twin Huey over the city of Najaf’s vast Shiite cemetery, where Jaish al-Mahdi insurgents would hide and then pop up to pepper American troops and Iraqi cops with gunfire.
The police station near Revolutionary Circle had come under attack, and so had U.S. forces that came to their aid.
Mount remembers hearing a blast while flying “really low” during a run over the tombs. Guerrillas had aimed in front of the helicopter’s path and fired.
A round pierced Mount’s flight helmet, entered behind the bridge of his nose, bored through his socket and tore out his right eye.
His hand jerked and the chopper lurched downward. Mount’s co-pilot, Andrew “Smithers” Turner, leveled off the helicopter and tried to gain altitude, but it belly-flopped onto a parking lot and skidded across a courtyard.
The war was over for Mount, a veteran of multiple combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Surgeons operated on him in the capital of Baghdad. Then came more treatment in Germany and the naval hospital in San Diego.
“They told me I had to sign some paperwork, which was weird,” he said. “You’re in a surgical hospital and you have to sign some paperwork to acknowledge that they’re going to take your eye out. But there wasn’t any eye left. It was all just mush.”
A string of surgeries closed up Mount’s wound, fused his sinuses and snipped the scar tissue binding his jaw muscles.
There were no wounded warrior units when Mount came home to his wife, Stephanie. No concussion therapy. No counseling.
“I filled out a checklist. My time with a psychologist was, maybe, five minutes,” he recalled.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on, but far fewer Marines now deploy there. In turn, the ranks of the sick and injured in Mount’s command have plummeted.
Today, the Corps counts about 250 patients under his wing — half the number from only five years ago, when 60 percent had Purple Hearts.
These days, 90 percent of his battalion will never go to war. They go home, usually after spending less than a year in Mount’s command.
“But everyone carries their own baggage from their experiences,” he said. “I need to show empathy to guys who are here who never deployed, who possibly weren’t even injured in a training accident.”
And the empathy comes from remembering his own recovery process — and all the help his commanders gave him.
“I try to lead by example,” said Mount, a Baptist. “I try to lead by being around, by being visible, by showing guys that I’m a normal person just like them.”
Before he recently came to Mount’s battalion, Master Sgt. Tait had been an infantryman for nearly two decades — fighting wars, training for wars and then deploying back to war.
So it wasn’t unusual in the summer of 2013 for him to set up reconnaissance on a target. He noted movements around a particular building, plotting how a grunt could get in and out of a high-risk place without being seen.
But most infantrymen don’t recon Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, where Tait worked as the operations chief.
“I went down to mental health. It took me three days of scouting and learning the pattern of how people go in and out so that I wouldn’t be seen. But I made my way in there. I started asking for help,” said Tait, now 43, of Victorville.
And that very gesture was a high-stakes rebellion against everything he was taught to value in the Corps.
It wasn’t just the stigma of a Marine admitting “bones all worn out, mind worn out,” he said. It was the culture of the infantry, where a twisted ankle puts a grunt on “phone watch” because “you’re no good to anyone until you’re healed.”
And there was something much more important than that.
“You never think about yourself,” Tait said. “You put your life on hold to worry about your Marines.”
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Tait said he has “leaned a lot on my faith to pull through this” initial phase of rehabilitation.
To him, Christmas is a not only a reminder that he must try to heal, but also to never forget his wife, his 18-year-old daughter, his 13-year-old son, his friends at a nondenominational Christian church off-base and his “third family” among the sick and injured at Camp Pendleton.
Echoing Mount, he wants civilians to know that despite the toll of war, he has no regrets about serving in the Corps. In fact, he said, he “loved every minute of it.”
For senior military leaders, he has another message: “Be ready for what you ask for, but be that leader who can show other Marines that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Mom’s robot leg
In her wheelchair, Staff Sgt. Pothoof can feel a limb that’s no longer there — and it hurts.
Surgeons amputated her left leg below the knee on Nov. 21, more than five years after a roadside bomb detonated under her Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected truck in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
She remembers grabbing at her machine gunner to see if he survived the blast, trying to make sure the radio still worked and fumbling for her rifle.
“And then I started patting myself down,” said Pothoof, now 26, of Bay City, Michigan. “I hit my leg and it was instantaneous. Fire throughout my whole body.”
She told the corporal in the passenger’s seat that “something’s not right,” and then she began drifting in and out of consciousness. She woke up on a stretcher in the middle of the barren plain.
Insurgents had packed the bomb with nails and screws. Metal speared through her leg.
A series of operations followed at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and then in Germany. Infection set in when she was on convalescent leave in Michigan. Doctors said the amputated leg has never really healed.
“I have so much damage still,” Pothoof said.
Traumatic brain injury forced her to relearn how to balance her body before she could walk again. When she started walking, her brittle leg bone broke again. And again.
She once wore a cast for six months straight. She developed “drop foot,” dragging it behind her.
Pothoof has a wife and a 4-year-old son in Missouri. After the amputation, the boy told her: “Mom, you’re gonna have a robot leg!” But she’s not sure if the surgeons are done. They might have to shave off more leg before she’s fitted with a prosthetic limb.
Pothoof is trying to stay in the Corps, and she prays the device will give her that last chance.
Until then, she aims to lead by example, reaching out to other Marines also striving to come to terms with the possible end of their military careers. It’s a lesson she learned from both her Lutheran faith and the Corps.
“Being a staff (non-commissioned officer), you still have the duty of making sure that your Marines are OK,” she said. “You’re here to recover and they say it’s all about you, but you can never make it all about you. You worry.
“I worry about master sergeant,” Pothoof said, nodding at Tait. “But master sergeant goes out of his way to make sure that I’m still getting up in the morning. And I check to see that even if he’s at the lowest point in his life, he can wake up in the morning, too.”
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