Staying Power: Marine Returns to Help Others on Road to Recovery
By Fred W. Baker III
|MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Quantico, Va., Nov. 18, 2008 – When Marine Staff Sgt. Daniel Kachmar extends his right hand to greet combat wounded Marines, there is an instant rapport.|
A combat veteran himself, having fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Kachmar, 24, can trade stories of blood and war; of buddies lost and battles fought.
But, Kachmar’s three-finger grip speaks louder than his words ever could. It says he understands the pain, the process and the path to healing.
Those who haven’t been seriously wounded "can’t relate to getting flown away from your buddies, bleeding and in pain, mad at yourself because you want to go back regardless of the injury." Kachmar said. "You can’t relate to lying in that bed at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center] for months at a time."
Kachmer is now part of the "Tiger Team" that helps those evacuated to U.S. military hospitals work their way through the recovery process. He also is one of the 2,700-plus Marines who have opted to stay on active-duty since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom despite injuries that could have released them from their obligation to the Corps.
Becoming a Marine
"The Marine Corps is all I know," said the Pittsburgh, Penn., native. "But I’m really good at doing what I’m doing. I like what I’m doing. And the Marine Corps has taken care of me."
Before joining the Marines, Kachmar was a self-described "bad kid" who spent more time on the streets than in school. He spent some time in the juvenile penal system and realized his life was heading in the wrong direction.
"I was on a road of destruction as a teenager and didn’t like what the future held," he said.
Looking around at the older guys still hanging out on the streets and getting into trouble, Kachmar decided it was time for a change.
"Geez, I don’t want to live my life like this. I don’t want to live in this town. I want to do something," he remembers thinking.
His dad was a former sailor, so, because of the historic rivalry, the Army was not an option, Kachmar said. His father consented to the Marine Corps because it was a department of the Navy.
Kachmar was 17 at the time, and had just finished his junior year in high school when he went to see a Marine Corps recruiter.
It was an easy day for the recruiter.
"I don’t want to talk about joining the Marine Corps, I just want to do it," Kachmar recalled telling the recruiter, and soon signed on the dotted line to serve as an infantryman.
Unfortunately, his impending service, which was to begin after graduation, didn’t keep Kachmar from getting into more trouble. In his senior year, he was expelled. His academics were in line, but officials wouldn’t let him finish the year.
So Kachmar headed to boot camp early. When he returned from Marine basic training, school officials granted his diploma.
"They said, ‘Good job for doing something with yourself,’" Kachmar said.
Getting Into the Fight
On June 24, 2002, Kachmar checked into the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and left in September for Afghanistan. There he worked at the embassy providing security.
"It wasn’t walking around the city kicking doors in but it was enough for a young guy … to kind of see the overall picture," he said.
He later saw combat during a 2004 deployment in Afghanistan, and he returned to the United States by Christmas of that year itching to fight in Iraq.
"That’s what you join the Marine Corps to do – to fight. We had plenty of a fight in Afghanistan, but I wanted to see the other theater. I wanted to do my part in both countries," Kachmar said.
So, he transferred to a sister battalion and left for Iraq in March 2005.
His battalion was based in Fallujah, Iraq, and his Alpha Company was about 15 miles north in a small town. There they were looking for improvised explosives, patrolling, conducting raids and providing security.
Kachmar recalled that period as one of "good times" because he said that being a squad leader watching over 13 other Marines, was "the best job in the Marine Corps."
"Everything that the Marine Corps infantry does, we were doing out there," the Marine said. "I got to fight in Afghanistan. I was getting my chance to fight in Iraq. We were kicking [butt] and taking names."
Kachmar said he was not scared serving in Iraq, but when he returned to his post from a mission, sometimes he would shake.
"You’re always kind of anxious over there. You’re sleeping and mortars are dropping. There’s always something," he said.
Coming up on the end of his four-year enlistment, Kachmar intended to re-enlist in Iraq and cash in on his tax-free status. His re-enlistment packet was in and approved. All he had to do was wait until Oct. 1, 2005.
On Aug. 25, 2005, Kachmar’s squad was sent out to look for an improvised explosive device planted somewhere along the road. They were to find it, mark it off and wait for the ordnance guys to blow it up.
"The IED found me instead," Kachmar said.
A Long, Painful Journey
Two stacked 155 mm artillery shells were buried along the side of the road that particular day. As Kachmar walked by, it was remotely detonated.
"I don’t remember the blast. I came to standing there in a cloud of dirt … and I’m like ‘What just happened?’" Kachmar said. "I’m looking around, and I’m inside this cloud of dirt, and I can’t see anybody, and then everything starts to come together.
"I tried to run away and as I took my first step, because my leg was broken, I just fell to the ground real hard. It felt like I got shot. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’" he said.
Shrapnel had ripped through Kachmar’s body. His hand was ripped apart and blood was pumping out of it. His left leg was shattered.
It was the leg injury that concerned him the most.
"Doc, am I going to lose my leg? Doc, doc, am I going to lose my leg?" Kachmar recalled asking the doctor again and again.
Even though he tried, the medic on the scene was not able to pull off a convincing "no."
"I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m losing my leg. They’re going to be calling me stumpy,’" Kachmar said.
His team loaded Kachmar into a Humvee and sped off to Camp Fallujah, about 20 miles away. Doctors were waiting to take him into surgery, and Kachmar knew he was going home but he did not want to leave Iraq without saying goodbye to his squad.
"I was mad," Kachmar said. "’Where’re my Marines at?’" he recalled yelling as nurses and doctors tried to calm him. "This is my squad and I’m not going to see them again. They’re still in Iraq and I’m going home … I want to talk to them."
Kachmar said he was afraid the doctors would take him into surgery and dismiss the squadmembers back to their duties, and he wouldn’t get to see them before he was flown out of the country.
"When you’re over there with guys and you go through [stuff] with them, it’s a pretty tight bond.
After he said goodbye to a few of his friends, and told his buddy to take care of his squad, the doctor and chaplain came to tell him it was time for surgery.
But Kachmar still had one more request.
"I said ‘Before you put me under I need to call my dad,’" he said.
So, a little more than 25 minutes after being blown up on the streets of Iraq, Kachmar called his dad a world away with news that could have been much worse, and for the first time started crying.
"It’s just hard to tell someone that you’re hurt. It could have been worse," he said.
In fact, this was not Kachmar’s first brush with a homemade bomb. Two
weeks before he had been hit by another IED, but those wounds were superficial.
Then he was being wheeled into the same room where he had been just weeks earlier. It is the last thing he remembers there.
Recovery as Empowerment
Doctors operated and stabilized Krachmar, and he was flown to Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad. There, other doctors operated, stabilized him again, and and he was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. From there, Kachmar was flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
He spent three months at the Bethesda hospital, suffering through operation after operation.
Shrapnel had blown through his hand damaging all of the muscles and nerves that work his fingers. Doctors rebuilt the hand, rebuilding bone, grafting nerves and muscles, and installing screws and plates to hold things together.
Krachmer’s leg needed rods and pins because his shin and calf bones were shattered. Muscle deteriorated leaving the doctors little to work with. In the end, they had a last choice – graft muscle from his abdominals to his leg, and hope it grows.
It worked, and now Kachmar has only a "three-pack" left in his belly, and three distinct ab-looking lumps on the inside lower part of his left shin.
"When I get hungry now, my leg hurts," Kachmar said jokingly.
Fortunately, doctors were able to work around the homemade number 33 tattooed just above his ankle – Kachmar’s high-school football number.
His hands were not quite the success story, however. After 30 surgeries his right pinky and ring finger were not functional. They were just "there," he said.
The bum fingers would get in the way, bumping into things as he tried to drive, while tying his shoes and the like. And, he said, they were "super sensitive" so every bump came with a shot of searing pain.
So, last year, facing no promise of ever having function in the fingers, Kachmar made the almost unthinkable decision. He had doctors cut them off.
"Getting operated on 30 times for two insignificant fingers, I said ‘Enough is enough. Go ahead and take them,’" Kachmar said. "They just got in the way."
The young, and sometimes not-very-patient Marine spent three months at Bethesda before being allowed to go home for a month. They released him in a wheelchair with promises of re-teaching him how to walk when he returned.
But, one night, sitting on the couch in his father’s Pittsburgh condominium, Kachmar decided to try walking on his own. It was late, he couldn’t sleep, and he needed to use the bathroom. Kachmar said he didn’t want to "crawl on his butt" up the stairs.
Kachmar said it "hurt like hell" at first, and his muscles were shaky, but his legs held and he worked his way up the steps.
"I think I rushed it too much, but it was empowering," Kachmar said. "Four months [before] I was laying in the middle of the street bleeding and [then] I’m teaching myself to walk, and I’m doing it on my own."
As it turns out, it was just the shot in the arm Kachmar needed. Before he returned to Pittsburgh, Kachmar went to Camp Lejeune to welcome his Marines back from Iraq. Then he went to the funeral of a longtime buddy who was killed in Iraq.
"It was pretty demoralizing. I was like, ‘I need to do something positive,’" he said. "I look back now and that was exactly what I needed."
So, Kachmar walked back into the hospital on his own accord after his 30 days of leave, much to the chagrin of the hospital staff.
Kachmar said the days were long at the hospital. When he got bored, Kachmar would hijack one of the wheel chairs and "go run off and raise hell."
A New Beginning
During that time, a girl from his hometown called to see how his recovery was going. One conversation led to another and a romance brewed. Kachmar made his move with the speed of a Marine infantryman securing his target.
"I came home, and I saw her and we hooked up, got married and now we’re making babies," Kachmar said, laughing.
The two were married in June 2006. Already, they have a 19-month-old girl, and twins, born this month.
The expeditious Kachmar didn’t want to waste time in therapy in the hospital either. He was ready to get back to work and said he felt that he could work the muscles even more outside the hospital as part of a normal day.
"I was doing occupational therapy for my hand and physical therapy for my leg and you go and you sit in a room with a bunch of therapists and they make you squeeze a ball … and walk and ride a bike. I can do all this stuff on my own by going about my normal day-to-day business. And that’s what I do," Kachmar said.
"Whenever I was doing occupational therapy, I would baby my hand and only work it when I was in therapy," he said. "Now I’m just like, ‘Do it. Figure out a way.’ I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t feel sorry for my hand. Suck it up and do it."
Now he works here at the headquarters of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, about 45 miles south of the Pentagon.
Still a Marine
Although Kachmar is back at work, he said he still considers himself in recovery and is working his body hard to get his abilities back to where they were before.
So far, Kachmar estimated he is about 70-percent physically capable of performing what he once was.
"I used to be a stud," Kachmar said. "I can barely do anything (now). It’s kind de-motivating, but at the same time it’s motivating. You look back on where you were and where you are at and it’s like ‘I’ve really got to get my butt in gear.’ It gives you a goal."
He can now run and do pull-ups and is working on the Marine fitness test. Before the IED explosion, he had scored at the top of the test. Now, he figures he can pass it, just not with the scores he wants.
The side of his hand is still "super" sensitive on the back side of his palm, Kachmar said. He can’t hold a remote control, or a butter knife. It is hard to hold a hammer, and tools, but he is becoming ambidextrous. For the most part he can "adapt and overcome," Kachmar said.
He can write with a pen, and still types with a "two finger punch." He never could type much before.
More importantly, Kachmar can still shoot a rifle and pistol.
When it came time for the young Marine to decide to stay in the service or get out, Kachmar opted to stay in. He is in waiting now for the ruling on a limited duty request.
In the other services, if a servicemember is found unfit for duty, they are discharged, although the services are working to retain combat wounded warriors who want to stay in. But in the Marine Corps, many Marines actually want an unfit for duty rating because it allows them to stay in, but receive assignment consideration for their injuries and resulting recoveries.
Recovery is a long, and sometimes confusing process, especially in its first few weeks, Kachmar said. Now he is there to help other Marines who are flown in. His job is educating other Marines on the process and their rights.
"When Marines get hurt, they’re swamped with so much information that they don’t take anything in," Kachmar said. "All they care about is ‘Am I going to walk again? Am I going to use my arm again? Is my brain going to function? That’s all they care about."
Kachmar tries to ease the pressure on the Marines by encouraging them to not make any decision too quickly.
"You’ve got a 20-year-old kid who’s married, and hasn’t known anything but the Marine Corps since high school, and now he’s got an injury
… he just doesn’t know," Kachmar said. "He has all these people telling him … ‘This is what you need to do, this is what you need to do.’"
"For me as another wounded Marine to come there and say, ‘Look, take a step back. Don’t be in any rush to make any decision. There is no point to it," he said.
For Kachmar, though, the decision is made. He said that deep down inside, he feels he can still recover to the point where he can stay in the infantry,
Now, his sights are set on the rigorous sniper school. To get into the school, he will have to work harder to improve his physical conditioning, Kachmar said.
"I don’t want to just go through the school. I want to … excel. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it right," Kachmar said.
If he can’t be a sniper, Kachmar is convinced there will be another career opportunity in the Corps. That’s because, Kachmar said, he has "leadership, experience" to bring to the fight.
"That’s all any Marine really needs, is leadership," Kachmar said.