This Iraq Veteran's Harrowing Survival Story Has a Heartwarming Happy Ending

He was badly injured in an attack in Iraq, but retired Army Ranger Michael Shlitz doesn't want anyone to feel bad for him. He's better than ever.

Michael Schlitz and veterans' advocate Gary Sinise. (Photo: Michael Schlitz/Facebook)

Nov 11, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Mike Dowling is author of Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between A Marine and His Military Working Dog, and cofounder of the non profit Veterans in Film & Television. He is a contributor to Take Part Live’s “Return The Service" campaign honoring the military veteran community.

There's no doubt veteran Michael Schlitz saw the worst of war on Feb. 27, 2007, when his vehicle hit an explosive in Iraq. The blast claimed the lives of three of the soldiers in the now-retired army ranger's unit and severely maimed Schlitz—he lost both his hands and some of his vision, and more than 85 percent of his body was burned.

Since that day Schlitz, who spent 14 years in the military and is now 38, has worked with advocacy organizations, giving back to his community. Recently he was honored by the Gary Sinise Foundation with a new home that is smart-wired to meet his needs.

“Before I was injured my life was about me, and now I get to make my life simply about others. So don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sad or apologize for what happened to me," Schlitz told TakePart. Here's his story, in his words, edited for length and clarity.

A large wave of emotions came over me, that I still had a fighting chance to live and I wasn’t going to die right there.

TakePart: Most Americans will never know what it's like to be on the ground in Iraq. Can you tell us what happened the day of the explosion?

Michael Schlitz: The day of the attack my unit was conducting road clearing missions. After turning around at a dead-end road all I remember is hearing a loud boom, and then I hit the ground. At first I was in shock. Then I looked up and could see my vehicle but couldn’t see my men. I started to run for the vehicle but realized I was on fire. I dropped down to roll, but my body locked up from the intense heat. My muscles just wouldn’t allow me to move. At that point I knew I was going to die lying face down in the dirt. I can remember screaming like I never had before. About the time I started thinking I was going to die I could hear my men yelling for me and feel the fire extinguisher hit my body.

A large wave of emotions came over me, that I still had a fighting chance to live and I wasn’t going to die right there.

Some of the men were going to drag me away from the burning vehicle because it was on fire and the spare ammo was starting to explode. But if they had, they would have killed me. Think about when you bake chicken, and the skin and meat just falls off. Soon the medevac landed, and I was rushed on board. I gave the flight medic my name and tried to give him my social security number before the medication kicked in. It would be my last memory for four months. Because of the nature of my wounds they had to place me in a medically induced coma. I had sustained 85 percent total body surface burns, loss of some vision, amputation of both hands due to the burns, and a limited range of motion.

While I was in the hospital I would ask about my guys, and the subject was always changed. Fast-forward: 10 months later I finally found out that I was the only survivor. I lost my driver, Cpl. Lorne Henry Jr.; my gunner, Sgt. Richard Soukenka; and my medic, Sgt. Jonathan Cadavero. It was a devastating hit.

TakePart: We're sorry for your tragic loss. What has your recovery process been like—the highs, the lows, the support you've been getting throughout?

Schlitz: I spent 10 months in the hospital, six months in the intensive care unit, and four months in the burn ward. I had to come to terms with the fact I no longer had hands and that my days as a combat leader were over. Luckily for me I had the endless support of my mother, Robbi, who is still my caregiver today. From the very beginning she stayed by my side, often setting her own needs aside so she could take care of me. I also had a lot of my ranger buddies, fellow veterans, and friends visit me in the hospital. I never felt like I was alone.

I did fall into a deep depression stemming from not having hands or the ability to care for myself. At the beginning there was not one thing I could do for myself. Thankfully, shortly before I was released as an outpatient, my mind turned to my soldiers as the rest of my unit was returning home, and I begged to go to show my men I was still alive. I was allowed to go but hated my men seeing me so weak. I told myself I would never let them see me that way again. That was a turning point in my recovery.

People may look at me and say, "Poor guy," but the truth is I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I’m full of hope and understanding of others. Before I was injured my life was about me, and now I get to make my life simply about others. So don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sad or apologize for what happened to me. This experience made me stronger. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s this: The American service member’s spirit cannot and will not be broken. You can throw dirt on us, beat us, or batter us, but you will not break us.

Since my injury I’ve returned to Iraq three times, including the area I was injured. I visited the correctional facility where they house insurgents, and they may have looked at me thinking they got one, but I’m the one still walking around with my head held high.

TakePart: What does Veterans Day mean to you?

Schlitz: Veterans Day to me comes down to one word: service. Each service member who serves, whether they volunteered or got drafted, served for the greater good of our great nation. Too often in the media or on social media I read articles or posts where people confuse service for combat or being wounded. We have thousands and thousands of veterans who served during peace time. Their service is no less than anyone else’s service. Someone they trained or trained with probably went on to serve in combat, and that’s honorable. Being a veteran who was wounded in action, people seem to focus on that. Truth is I served 14 years in the Army. I’m proud of all my service.

Here's the latest on Schlitz and a peek inside his amazing new smart home, courtesy of the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Follow Schlitz through his Facebook fan page, “Through Burnt Eyes,” and on Twitter ‪@RangerSchlitz‪.