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Injured Marine is finally home, retired from military and starting life ... again

Prep the tanks, eat breakfast, battle insurgents. Attend formation, go to rehab, learn to walk again.

For more than a year, Mitch Ehlke had a schedule, a mission — first as a Marine in Iraq, then as a patient at a Washington, D.C. military hospital.

As a Marine, Ehlke is used to structure and orders. After losing his right leg below the knee in Iraq last May, he worked for nearly a year to learn to walk and run well enough to return to duty with his tank crew.

But the Marine Corps denied his request and sent him home to the Treasure Valley to find work as a civilian.

Now Ehlke is 21 and retired. His biggest challenge is figuring out what to do with his life.

"I walk around lost sometimes," Ehlke said shortly after he returned home for good this spring after 10 months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C.

It's a lot to handle for someone barely old enough to drink, and a situation in which many young veterans are finding themselves as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the Marines asked Ehlke to retire in March, it was the second time his injury cost him a dream — before he lost his leg, he'd hoped to be a career military pilot.

After a yearlong ordeal that started when a bomb exploded under his tank May 8, 2005, Ehlke was disappointed to leave the Marines but glad to be back in the Treasure Valley with no return ticket to D.C.

He keeps his linebacker frame upright and walks with purpose, his steady gait belying his artificial leg. He's let his blond hair grow past the high-and-tight cut he wore in the Marines, and he says it's weird to once again have a personal life.

"I need to take a breather and relax a little bit, because I haven't been able to relax in a while," he said.

Ehlke is temporarily living with his parents and younger siblings at their Star home, where daily life is getting back to its familiar pre-war chaos.

"Things are back to normal — the bantering, the teasing," said Ehlke's mom, Debbie. "(His siblings) are not treating him with kid gloves anymore."

But his time in Iraq weighs heavily on Mitch Ehlke's mind — he's got satellite images of key Iraqi cities from his tour saved on his laptop computer. Unlike at Walter Reed, he finds few people to talk to about it at home. Even some fellow veterans who served on less-dangerous missions have a hard time understanding what he went through.

"It's not something everyone can share in," Ehlke said of the heavy combat he saw as a lance corporal with a M1-A1 tank crew.

It's a common feeling for combat veterans, who should seek out other veterans who have seen battle, said retired Air Force Chaplain Major Thomas G. Westall, who lives in Mountain Home.

Those who haven't experienced combat cannot relate to those experiences, said Westall, who served 24 years as a chaplain, part of that during the Vietnam War. People without combat experience don't worry about roadside bombs, aren't suspicious of groups of people in the mall and don't look for booby traps, he said.

Ehlke is exploring an out-of-town job opportunity helping other veterans, but wounded veterans sometimes face the prejudice of employers leery of hiring someone with a serious injury, Westall said.

"Just going into the work force can be intimidating," he said. "They have to be prepared in some cases for rejection."

Ehlke receives a pension and free medical care from the military, and he got $50,000 for his injury as part of the federal Wounded Warrior legislation. He has been dealing with decisions most 21 year olds don't — sorting out his retirement and shopping for houses, although buying a home or enrolling in college is on hold while he looks into a job.

While Ehlke was rehabilitating at Walter Reed, most of his fellow Marines returned to Idaho. Even his injured tank mates have begun rebuilding their lives.

Joe Lowe of Eagle, who was paralyzed in the bombing, has bought a house and is working for his father's company.

Chad Brumpton of Boise, who suffered multiple broken bones in the attack, is working for the state and engaged to be married in June.

"I kind of got held back, and I'm trying to play catch up," Ehlke said. "They've already moved on with their lives and I'm back at square one."

As Ehlke waited in a narrow Boise Veteran's Affairs Medical Center hallway this spring, staring at the stark white walls, an older amputee with a white beard rolled by in a wheelchair, nodding to Ehlke as he passed.

In the nearly 10 months Ehlke spent at Walter Reed, he became comfortable with his orthopedic doctor and prosthetist.

Now that he's back in the Treasure Valley and sick of the Boise-to-D.C. commute, he is seeking local care.

"I had a really good relationship with my old doctor so I'm a little nervous about this," he said while waiting for his first appointment with his new doctor.

Ehlke is part of a tidal wave of patients the Boise V.A. has had to absorb as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the nearly 20,000 veterans enrolled with the Boise V.A., about 700 served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past five years. To keep up with demand, the V.A. has hired 68 additional caregivers since 2001, a 10 percent increase.

Still, 70 percent of those registered with the Boise medical center are 55 or older and Ehlke stands out.

When he first visited the V.A., a patient asked him whom he was visiting. He pulled up his right pant leg to reveal his prosthetic to explain why he was there.

Veterans of recent wars are seeking help at a greater rate and sooner than their counterparts in previous conflicts, Leonard said.

"They're probably in the long run going to be a little better off (than veterans of earlier wars) because they're being met at the front door, so to speak," he said.

Ehlke had hoped to stay on a Marine tank crew and went through months of grueling rehabilitation, sweating through daily physical therapy sessions at Walter Reed to get as close to full strength as possible. He went from struggling to lift his prosthetic leg over cones to running on a treadmill and blowing through speed and balance drills that would give fits to most people with two legs.

He hoped to convince the Marines to let him go back to a tank crew and serve his remaining time in the Reserves. He stayed at Walter Reed months longer than he needed to, wading through paperwork and bureaucracy, but military officials told him in March to take his retirement.

Despite his disappointment, Ehlke said he won't fight the decision.

"I think they're just looking out for me," he said.

While active-duty Marines have been allowed to return to Iraq after amputations, there is no similar system in place for reservists. Ehlke is one of the first reservists to make such a request.

"We haven't really encountered that yet," said Chief Warrant Officer Charles Andrews, who oversees services for injured and ill marines and their families at Walter Reed.

While at Walter Reed, Ehlke quietly worked to improve the lives of his fellow wounded veterans, visiting newly arrived amputees to help them work through their initial fears.

When Twin Falls marine Cpl. Travis Greene arrived at the National Naval Medical Center in December after losing both legs in an explosion, Ehlke was soon by his bedside offering encouragement. Ehlke even started a fashion trend at Walter Reed by getting a piece of his desert camouflage laminated and adorning his prosthetic leg with it. Since then, legs with laminated decorations have been popping up all over the hospital's amputee ward, Andrews said.

Now, Ehlke may have an opportunity to continue helping veterans — he is talking to the Wounded Warrior Project, a national organization that provides services for wounded veterans, about working as a wounded veteran representative at a military hospital in San Diego.

"If I can still contribute somehow, if this is it, I want to make the best out of it," he said.

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