After losing both his legs to an IED, Afghanistan veteran uses para-canoe as part of recovery
By JON MANLEY | The Peninsula Gateway | Published: August 1, 2019
GIG HARBOR, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Ambushed in a firefight while on a tour in Afghanistan in December 2011, former U.S. Army combat engineer Michael McCallum went up to the roof of a nearby building to get a better vantage point.
That’s when an improvised explosive device went off, blowing a hole through the roof and immediately blowing off both of McCallum’s legs.
Everything went dark for McCallum, who only heard ringing in his ears. As he looked down at his legs — his left leg, with a large bone sticking out, and his right leg, with a piece of skin dangling off — McCallum’s first thought wasn’t one you would expect.
“One of the first things that went through my head was that I’m never going to be able to skateboard or snowboard again,” McCallum said. “That was my first thought.”
Eventually, McCallum would be able to do all sorts of physical activities, with the help of prosthetics and rehabilitation. Most recently, he’s joined the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team as a para-canoe athlete, and is eyeing a spot in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Right now, McCallum is in a good place, both mentally and physically. But the road to where he is now hasn’t been an easy one.
McCallum was fitted for prosthetic legs shortly after his injury and, for a while, everything seemed to be fine. For the first year after his injury, McCallum was ready to make the most out of his situation. He was playing sled hockey once or twice a week, kayaking and generally staying active.
But about a year later, things took a turn for the worse. Whether it was the reality of the situation finally dawning on him, or something else, McCallum said, he spiraled into an immediate depression.
“I was just done with everything,” McCallum said. “I didn’t want to do anything.”
So McCallum withdrew into a state of isolation in his home in Chehalis, shutting himself out from the world, and filling the void with weed, alcohol and an addiction to pain medication.
“It was just rough waking up every day and not being able to do the stuff I had always done,” McCallum said.
Eventually, around September of 2017, McCallum decided enough was enough. Perhaps the most challenging part of his recovery was kicking the pain medication addiction.
“I told some people that the pain of going through [withdrawals], I almost felt it was sometimes — I would rather have the pain of having my legs blown off again,” he said. “The mental and physical things you go through, it was just horrifying. I felt like I was dying and my insides were trying to kill me.”
The 34-year-old McCallum, who is originally from Tacoma joined the military at 21 years old. After returning to his home state from Texas, where he spent some time following his injury, McCallum eventually started going to some PTSD and substance abuse groups at the VA Medical Center in Tacoma.
He started doing yoga and forcing himself out of the house more often.
“I had tried doing stuff before and I’d just get upset about something and just fall right back to where I was,” McCallum said. “But the last time I did, I was just sick and tired of being the way I was. I was fed up enough to where that last time, I thought, this is it. I told myself, ‘It’s OK to go through an incident and need some time to figure things out, but enough is enough, get back out there. I’m better than this.’”
McCallum first met Ryan Blanck at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Blanck wasn’t McCallum’s prosthetist at the time, but knew him.
Around the same time McCallum was heading back to Washington, Blanck was also headed to the Evergreen state to head up the Hanger Clinic in Gig Harbor.
The two linked up and Blanck has fitted McCallum with several pairs of prosthetics, including longer prosthetics with a knee, C-shaped running prosthetics and shorter prosthetics that McCallum calls “stubbies,” that he wears during workouts. McCallum also works out and trains at the Hanger Clinic multiple times per week.
Blanck, who is a member of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team, along with his two kids, invited McCallum to last year’s Paddler’s Cup event to join their dragon boat team for the event.
McCallum quickly took to the water, and was extended an invitation to come try one of the boats for himself a couple months later. Since then, McCallum has been training and competing as a para-canoeist and has quickly established himself as one of the country’s top para-canoe athletes.
“I knew he’d do really well,” Blanck said. “He’s out there every day, every morning, every afternoon. Even with ice around the edges of the water in the middle of winter, when it’s 30 degrees, he’s out there. It’s been nothing short of amazing. It’s inspiring to me. I’m just blessed to know Mike.
“He helps me look at life in a different way. You never take stuff for granted. He’s taken his opportunities and made something of that.”
For McCallum, being on the water is therapeutic and has helped him work through some of his depression.
“You kind of just don’t have anything else to worry about,” McCallum said. “Getting back on a team and just having everyone helping each other, doing things together, having a group of people working toward a common goal. When you’re doing it with people who are fun to hang out with, it makes it that much better.”
Bryse Paffile, McCallum’s coach, said being on the water has a relaxing influence.
“It’s just an opportunity to focus on something different,” Paffile said. “There’s something about being connected on the water, it calms the mind.”
While McCallum said his main goal is just to have fun and enjoy himself, he does have his sights set on securing a spot on Team USA for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
He’ll compete in Georgia in early August at USA Sprint Nationals and later in Hungary in an international competition, in an effort to qualify for the Paralympics roster. He’ll have some good competition, with paddlers who have years more experience.
He might but the underdog, but knowing McCallum, Blanck likes his chances.
“He’s become a physical presence,” Blanck said. “He’s strong, focused, determined. If he doesn’t qualify, there’s no negative on him. But if he does, I wouldn’t be surprised. The odds for someone to do that less than a year after picking up the sport — it’s probably never been done before. … He has a quiet determination. He’s modest, but fearless, really.”
McCallum is working harder than ever to reach that goal of representing his country on the biggest stage.
“I have a lot of work to do if I’m going to get a gold medal,” he said. “I’ve gotten this far in such a short amount of time. If I just keep sticking to what I’m doing, the way I’m doing it, I think I can do it.”