Wearing a Marines T-Shirt that reads, “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” Lance Cpl. Mitchell Ehlke of Star dons a 20-pound weighted vest with two long rubber tubes snaking out the back. Dripping sweat, he grits his teeth and pulls his physical therapist down the hall like a motor boat towing a water-skier.
Nearly every day for five months, the Marine who lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq has visited the physical therapy room on the third floor of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., determined to run, bike and swim again using his new titanium limb.
“I don’t want it to be a crutch for me,” he says. “I want it to be a leg.” Before leaving in March for a tour of duty in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Mitch Ehlke had his military career mapped out. He would serve with the Marine Reserves, finish college, complete officer training and head to flight school to fulfill his longtime dream of becoming a military pilot.
Those plans exploded on May 8. Ehlke’s tank hit a roadside bomb in Iraq, costing him his leg and his aspirations. Now, the 21-year-old Star resident is figuring out what do with the rest of his life.
He’s still a Marine, his blond hair kept close-cropped with mandatory weekly trims. But his mission has shifted from battling insurgents in Iraq to fighting to regain his mobility through rigorous physical therapy.
When Ehlke started his rehab at Walter Reed, he stumbled at simple drills like lifting his prosthetic leg over tiny cones — a “humbling experience,” he said.
By October, he was running 10-minute miles on the treadmill. He was blasting through football-style running drills that his physical therapist, Bob Bahr, who is not an amputee, had trouble completing.
Ehlke’s rehabilitation includes building his abdominal muscles, which are key to balance for amputees.
Bahr has Ehlke sit on a foam cylinder and catch an 11-pound ball. It’s difficult with two legs, let alone one — this Statesman reporter repeatedly fell off the cylinder while trying the exercise. But Ehlke tosses the ball with ease and barely wavers on his perch.
The amputees’ “PT room” at Walter Reed also provides emotional rehabilitation, offering interaction with other amputees and a sense of normalcy, Bahr said. He likens the room to a cocoon, free from whispers and stares. Patients learn to feel comfortable with their injuries with the help of others in similar situations.
“People say this is the most positive corner of the hospital,” he said.
‘We don’t just fit the leg, we fit the mind’
In the early morning darkness, Mitch Ehlke hops past his sleeping roommate to the bathroom to brush his teeth, one hand clutching his toothbrush, the other steadying him against the sink.
He hops back through his converted hotel room on the Walter Reed grounds, sits down on his bed, ties his shoe, and puts on his right leg for morning formation.
Ehlke has grown accustomed to the daily routine at Walter Reed: a morning meeting with other injured Marines, physical therapy and appointments with doctors, prosthetic specialists and military officials.
The former linebacker for the Eagle High School football team was an avid outdoorsman, hiker and ATV rider before his injury and has been working with prosthetist Eric Desarme since arriving at Walter Reed.
Eventually, Desarme will help get Ehlke into separate artificial legs for trail-walking, running and swimming. Lean and sinewy with an easy smile, Desarme is a mix of mechanic and psychologist. He must constantly tinker with prostheses to keep up with the continual swelling and shrinking of residual limbs. He also must gauge his patient’s emotional state.
“We don’t just fit the leg, we fit the mind as well,” Desarme said. Desarme spent the first eight years of his career as a prosthetist in private practice, working mainly with elderly patients who had lost limbs to ailments like diabetes and vascular diseases. Working with young, fit amputees often means better outcomes and quicker recoveries.
“To have some young guys to work with is bittersweet,” he said. “It sucks that there are young guys that are amputees because of this tragic war, but at the same time, I feel proud as well as excited that I can make a big difference in their lives.”
Ehlke could have left Walter Reed by now, but he has stayed to get additional rehabilitation and to work on completing the last 2› years of his Marine Reserve commitment rather than take a medical discharge.
This means passing a physical fitness test and going before a Naval medical review board to prove he’s ready to return to duty. He wants to return to Iraq, but he knows that’s unlikely with an artificial leg.
‘I have to figure out a new life-long goal’
Legs, arms hands and feet are stuffed into boxes on the plaster-dusted floor of the Walter Reed prosthetics laboratory. They are made of plastic, metal and rubber but some look eerily real: arms and feet come complete with veins and freckles painted by professional artists to match those of the amputees.
Ehlke is one of about 360 amputees injured in Afghanistan and Iraq that Walter Reed has treated since 2001, said Ralph Urgolites, the hospital’s chief of prosthetics and orthotics.
Not since Vietnam has the nation seen so many amputees. But today’s amputees have access to advanced technology and improved prosthetics.
Another big difference, Urgolites noted: Today’s body armor is much better at helping servicemen survive attacks. That means limbs, not torsos, take the brunt of explosions.
“In previous wars, if you saw somebody that was hit by (a rocket-propelled grenade) that removed the arm at the shoulder, more than likely you would see shrapnel go in and hit a vital organ and that would be the end of their life,” Urgolites said.
Operation Iraqi Freedom recently tallied its 2,000th military death, an event that drew headlines and peace-group protests.
There is less focus on the approximately 15,000 servicemen and women who have been injured in Iraq.
“Most of the time the media or anybody else don’t see this side,” Ehlke said. “They just see the numbers, you know, when somebody gets killed but not when someone’s got injured. There’s a lot of us and we really go unseen and unnoticed.”
At age 21, Ehlke must not only learn how to use his prosthesis, he must rebuild his life. For losing a leg, he gets $50,000, a Purple Heart and lifetime free medical care from the government. Ehlke, who is unmarried and has no girlfriend, said the silver lining in the bombing that seriously injured him and two fellow Idaho Marines is that none of them had spouses or children.
“I look back on this experience and say, ‘Why not me? Why should it be someone else?’” he said.
He feels “phantom pains” in his missing right foot and toes and suffers post-traumatic stress-related insomnia. With rehab, the separation from his family and his worries about his fellow Marines, he’s had too much on his mind to sleep.
“I keep hoping I’ll wake up in Iraq the night before it happened,” he said.
Talking about the consequence of his injury is the only time emotion breaks through his voice.
Ehlke had ambitions to be a pilot, but a missing leg is an automatic disqualification from flight school.
“That has been the most emotional and nerve-racking thing for me: My lifelong goal has been taken away from me,” he said. “Now I have to figure out a new life-long goal.”
May 8: The day that changed Ehlke’s life
Mitch Ehlke remembers being blown into the air before everything went black. He came to in the smoking remains of his M1-A1 Abrams tank, insurgent bullets tinking off the destroyed tank. It was May 8, Mother’s Day.
A roadside bomb had exploded as Ehlke’s crew was returning from an insurgent sweep near the Syrian border, sending shrapnel tearing through the tank, shredding Ehlke’s leg and arm and leaving two other Idaho Marines seriously injured.
Ehlke was unconscious for about 45 minutes. He remembers being rescued under fire, and enduring his initial surgery without anesthesia. Eventually, he was taken to a military hospital in Germany, where doctors gave him grim news.
“They told me in Germany, ‘You’re going to lose your leg, going to lose your arm.’ I said, ‘Hey, no limb hacking until we get back to the States,’ ” Ehlke recalled, looking at a wishbone scar on his right arm. Doctors saved the arm, despite extensive muscle and nerve damage. Two Boise Marines also were badly hurt in the bombing.
The tank’s gunner, Lance Cpl. Joe Lowe, was paralyzed from the waist down and tank commander Staff Sgt. Chad Brumpton suffered multiple broken bones.
The tank’s driver, Lance Cpl. Fernando Lazalde of Driggs, was not seriously injured.
All are Marine reservists who served with Idaho’s Charlie Company, 4th Tank Battalion.
“It could and should have been a lot worse for me,” Ehlke said. “I was very fortunate.”
Work, school wait as Ehlke focuses on independence
One scene among many emotional reunions Oct. 14 at the Boise Airport:
Ehlke and Sgt. Luke Miller embrace, tears falling onto their desert camo. Both are dressed in uniforms as they were the last time they saw each other, when Miller pulled his bloodied friend to safety from his wrecked tank.
Ehlke flew to Boise to join a crowd of several hundred people at the Boise Airport to greet his fellow Idaho Marines returning from Iraq.
For the first time since the explosion, Ehlke saw Miller, the Boisean he credits with saving his life by pulling him from his tank under fire.
The weeklong visit home also was the first time in two months Ehlke had seen his family.
Ehlke’s deployment to Iraq and his injury have been much harder on his family. Ehlke recently asked his family not to visit him at Walter Reed so he could complete his rehab without distractions. “I told them not to, that this is my thing,” he said.
Independence is Ehlke’s focus these days. He plans to return to classes at Boise State University eventually, but work, education, future — all are luxuries that can wait until he can walk, run and swim the way he could when he clambered into that tank on Mother’s Day. “I’m trying not to think of the long term too much because it hurts my head,” he said.
His mother, Debbie Ehlke, said she talks to her son on the phone about every other day but that it’s difficult not to see him.
“It’s hard not knowing what stage he’s in and how he’s doing,” she said
After the initial shock of hearing that their son was hurt, Ehlke’s parents say, their strong Christian faith has helped them come to accept his injury.
“It’s becoming normal, whatever that is, to see him walking through here or hopping here,” Debbie Ehlke said.
‘I’m trying to get better ... so I can walk like him’
A young woman who lost her leg in Iraq is brought into the physical therapy room. It’s Army Spc. Natasha McKinnon’s first day at Walter Reed and the 22-year-old stares blankly at the ceiling, talking in near whispers to her physical therapist.
Ehlke approaches. He talks to her, gives her a close look at his leg, talks about his injury, smiles. By the end of their conversation she too is smiling, the fear slowly draining from her face.
Ehlke makes a point of talking with new amputees. He remembers well the fear and anger he felt when he first arrived at the hospital, lying in his bed staring at the void where his leg and foot should have been. He remembers the reassuring words from people who couldn’t possibly know what he was going through.
“The staff can tell you anything, but they’re walking around on two legs,” he said.
These days he’s eager to show off his prosthesis, rapping his fist on his metal shin, and performing drills that would give most non-amputees fits. He likes to help new patients see that their injury is not the end of the world.
“I looked at them and saw me. They were lying in bed, staring at the ceiling wondering what they were going to do with the rest of their life,” he said.
After visiting with Ehlke and seeing his mobility, McKinnon said she’s encouraged.
“I’m trying to get better ... so I can walk like him.”
Sometimes, Ehlke feels like he’s living in an aquarium A constant stream of celebrities, athletes and politicians are herded through Walter Reed Army Hospital to visit the injured servicemen and women.
Some take a keen interest in the patients, sitting down and asking them how they are doing, Ehlke said. Many, however, look uncomfortable and walk past without a word.
“Sometimes you get the visitors ... who don’t really want to integrate with you, just want to see the facility,” he said. “That’s when it feels like an aquarium.”
Walter Reed’s third floor houses several of the hospital’s amputee services. Spending each day there, said Ehlke, it’s easy to forget there is anything unusual about missing a limb. One man in the PT room rolls through in his wheelchair, both legs missing. The man offers a friend a mock-salute, raising a rubber arm.
Ehlke lives with a roommate who lost his right leg in the war. They start each morning meeting with about a dozen other Marine amputees. His best friends at the hospital are Marines Jamel Daniels, from New York City, and Tim Horton, from Wichita, Kan., both of whom lost their left legs in roadside bombings. The trio of Marines have been hitting the town, going to football and baseball games and sampling the ample D.C. nightlife.
The only time they are made aware of their injuries, Ehlke said, is when they get the inevitable funny looks.
“We’re so used to seeing everyone else, other amputees, guys with missing arms, missing legs, we treat it as normal,” he said.
Ehlke’s proud of his service and has no regrets, but he doesn’t want his leg to change the way he is treated.
Even when he was home visiting Star last month, many people had read about his story and stopped him to thank him for his service. Seeing his prosthetic leg, well-wishers approached him in the grocery store to shake his hand.
Ehlke appreciates the kind words, but longs for the day when he can go to the store and just be Mitch again.
“I force myself to wear blue jeans and cargo pants,” he said. “I just want to get a gallon of milk and potato chips.”
To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Heath Druzin at email@example.com or 373-6617.