Couple survives Soldier’s injuries, works toward new future

By Suzanne Ovel/Warrior Transition Battalion on January 24, 2013

"I never, ever expected to get a phone call. I thought you were invincible," Cheryl Leonard said to her husband, recalling his last deployment.

But her phone did ring in March 2010, just a few months after 1st Sgt. Mike Leonard went to Afghanistan. As a new leader with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's then-5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, Leonard had opted to join his Soldiers on a patrol in Kandahar Province.

"I wanted them to see I was in the muck with them; to see I was just as much in the fight as they were," said Leonard, who earned two Bronze Stars on previous tours.

When his Stryker vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, Leonard suffered injuries so brutal that he came close to death.

"He proved them all wrong; he survived," Cheryl said.

His injuries, though, were severe, multiple and immediate: he lost his right leg below his knee, fractured his left foot, broke his back, and suffered a collapsed lung, a severe traumatic brain injury and a significant loss of blood. Medevac flights landed him at then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"The first thing I remembered was Cheryl's voice, and she was ... music in my ear," said Leonard.

Although he had already surpassed initial expectations, he still faced intense, constant struggles.

"You go from combat to something totally foreign ... there's nothing that can prepare you for this," he said.

Long road to recovery

"I told him the day I got there, ‘I go home when you go home,'" Cheryl said.

"She really became my biggest cheerleader, my biggest advocate," Leonard said of his wife of 10 years.

When his behavior changed due to his brain injury, she learned how to react to him in a healthy way. When he was reluctant to use his pain medication he clearly needed, she covered his hand with hers to help him press the pump button. And when the doctors advised that she allow them to amputate his other leg, she recalled a pre-deployment conversation in which he revealed that he feared becoming a double amputee, so she delayed that decision until he could make it for himself.

It took talking to four doctors for him to make that choice. With a calcaneus (heel) fracture in his left leg, Leonard found there was no news of upcoming breakthroughs to help his injury; his left leg started to feel like a dead weight.

"I was watching guys who were coming in with single-leg amputations and they were up and going," he said. On Jan. 10, 2011, Leonard underwent surgery to amputate his left leg at the same height as his right. After months of being wheelchair-bound prior to his surgery, Leonard was afterwards walking with a cane within several weeks.

While meeting constantly with specialists to adjust his prosthetics, Leonard underwent multiple surgeries for his back, his legs and other conditions. After a year and a half at Walter Reed, the Leonards came back to their home in Lacey and joined the Warrior Transition Battalion at JBLM in August 2011; he got a service dog that winter. They started to think that his recovery phase was over.

Starting over

June brought with it a tremendous setback, though. On a medical visit in Balboa, Calif., Leonard fell and broke his hip.

"They warn all the guys they see, ‘You're going to take two steps forward and three steps back,'" said Cheryl. His mobility shrank severely as he returned to home health care, and once again set on the journey of graduating from wheelchair to walker to cane.

Now, the couple is headed back to Walter Reed for surgeries on his right leg. Awaiting them when they return to JBLM will be most likely a retirement and a move to Arizona, where an agency is building them a wheelchair-accessible home. Leonard hopes his next role will be as a mentor, perhaps through a nonprofit organization. He'd like people to know that wounded Soldiers can still be of value.

"We still have a lot to contribute to the fight," he said. "We still have a lot to contribute to society."