The Road to Resilience – “My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.” ―Mizuta Masahide
The U.S. Marine helicopter banked sharply to the left. The aerial door gunner held on and leaned with it. The 21-year-old Sergeant was used to it by now.
This was her first deployment in Afghanistan. Their team had completed their first mission of the day and was now heading to provide support to Marines pinned down by enemy fire.
But something felt wrong. The helicopter continued to bank to the left, and the pilot wasn’t correcting. She glanced into the cockpit and the pilots were a whirlwind of activity. She felt her stomach rise to her throat. The sharp left bank didn’t stop, and the ground raced to meet them.
The Afghan landscape filled her vision, and her last thought was, “This is it.”
Hazy memories washed in her mind. In between, white-hot flashes of pain coursed through her body. She struggled to wake herself up from the nightmare. When she finally opened her eyes, she saw the hospital room.
It wasn’t a nightmare. It was reality…
(Scroll to the bottom to read the rest of The Story!)
Debbie Clarke Moderow is and a two time Iditarod veteran and the author of Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail.
Debbie joined us on The Mission Daily to share her story of resilience and the lessons she learned from running the Iditarod. She also talks about leadership and how she forged an unbreakable bond between her and her dogs.
“Real resilience comes from keeping your eyes on a distant horizon line, not getting too stuck in the moment, and recognizing each moment along the way is not going to be perfect.”
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The Story (continued)
…The staff explained the details of what had happened. Their helicopter had malfunctioned and after that crash — it was a miracle she was alive.
She had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Her face was covered in lacerations. A spinal cord injury left her immobilized and her left leg had been crushed. The doctors had managed to save it, but they weren’t sure if they would be able to preserve it.
She was shipped to California. More nightmares. Painkillers. Operations. Plastic surgery to try and reconstruct her face.
Hell followed. And the recovery period was just as bad.
Veterans who have been wounded call the one-year anniversary of their event their “Alive Day.” On her Alive Day, the young woman thought back on her life — what she had, what she lost. She had grown up the daughter of two Marines. Being a Marine was all she had ever wanted to do. But now, her life was over, her body was destroyed, and she couldn’t recognize herself when she looked in the mirror.
She didn’t feel “alive”. Her world was dark. On her alive day, the thought she returned to again and again was, “Why go on?”
So she tried to take her own life. But she woke up still breathing.
After the suicide attempt, tears filled her father’s eyes as he spoke to her:
“The enemy couldn’t kill you. Why would you try to do it yourself? You’re tougher than that.”
The words hit home, and hope returned to her world. She realized that she had made it home when a lot of her sisters and brothers in arms hadn’t.
She started to think about what she could do with her life.
One day while lying in her hospital bed, a rep from an organization called Disabled Sports USA knocked on her door and said, “Want to get out of here?”
Of course, she did!
But there was a catch, she would have to learn a winter sport. They had an opening and had heard she used to snowboard.
She agreed, and soon was sneaking away from the hospital one day a week to snowboard. Next, she added swimming, rowing, and outdoor cycling to her weekly routine. She felt the power returning to her body and her spirits surged. The 2018 Winter Paralympics got on her radar.
During this time, the doctors still couldn’t figure out how to save her leg. The bad news turned worse, and after three years and three dozen surgeries, they had to amputate her leg below the knee.
She consoled herself with the thought, “At least I still have my knee. I can still do a lot.”
But only one month after that, she developed a post-surgery infection. The doctors would have to remove her left knee.
A righteous rage filled her as she screamed at the doctors. Her dream to be a Marine was crushed. And now so was her dream to be a Paralympian.
Above-the-knee amputees have to relearn everything. She felt like a toddler, learning the basics of walking, turning, climbing stairs, sitting. She fell far more than a toddler.
But now her mind was made up. Defeat and dishonor weren’t options.
She adopted two mantras on the days she felt like giving up:
“Stop worrying about what you lost. Look at what you’ve got.”
“What counts is what’s behind your rib cage and six inches between your ears.”
She turned back to sports and they saved her. Despite the setback, she went on to win in snowboarding at the USA Snowboard and Freeski National Championship — and then placed fifth in the world competition. She competed in rowing, swimming and outdoor cycling at the 2016 Invictus Games. And she didn’t stop there.
She took up mountain climbing and has now summited Mount Kilimanjaro and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia.
Now, everything is different for the better.
In between healing from her own injuries, she volunteers to help other servicemen overcome theirs. A fellow wounded veteran once said to her, “You inspired me to walk another 10 steps.” The woman then asked for her autograph.
With tears in her eyes, the young Sergeant obliged, and signed her name…
To keep going after your body is destroyed is no easy task. But each of us has a reality to face. An easy life isn’t promised to any of us. Death and aging are realities for all of us and Kirstie’s story is about persevering, learning, and growing to find new limits to what her body is capable of. And through that pursuit, she inspires others on their own journeys.
So no matter where you’re at, you can dwell on what you’ve lost. You can focus on what you don’t have. You can keep a mindset of, “coulda, shoulda, or woulda.”
Or you can develop a mindset like Kirstie of:
“I can. I will. I must.”
When the days get dark, follow Kirstie’s lead, and try helping someone else. Others around us are fighting battles that we know nothing about. When we reach out and help, we often find someone who wants to help us back, and a virtuous cycle of hope, faith, and progress begins again. So even after you lose everything, remember that you can still accomplish anything.
(To learn more about Kirstie’s inspiring story in her own words, check out this ESPN article.)
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