|Mitic rests briefly on the battlefield, just days before losing both legs to a landmine.|
Master Cpl. Jody Mitic's future came to him in a farmer's field, on an earthen embankment beside a narrow path in the heart of Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. At 4 a.m., it had already been a rough day. The Canadian master sniper and his men had just returned from a three-week stint with the American Green Berets, and they needed a break. Mitic was carrying a 30 lb. radio with his pack, and the fact that his rifle' silencer kept coming loose in the dark wasn't helping matters. Worse, his boss had decided to come along with the usually three-person team, and they had missed taking a scheduled break because someone had mistakenly looked to the boss, instead of Mitic, the patrol leader, when asking whether to move on.
At six-foot, four-inches and 215 pounds, Mitic was a professional soldier in every sense of the term. He was used to doing his job right. He had joined the Militia, the Canadian version of the National Guard, at 17, and then spent years working his way up through a regular Army that was suffering through a national ambivalence about whether Canada should have military forces at all. "When I joined the regular forces," Mitic says, "the leadership, all the way up the chain of command, was lazy and they weren't worried about the soldiers. That wasn't what I signed up for—I wanted to be a real soldier. I wanted to be serious." Being serious, to Mitic, meant finding the few combat jobs left that could lead to elite-forces work. "One of those jobs, he says, "was being a sniper. Those guys were held to a higher standard. Being one wouldn't get you any more pay or a longer vacation, but it brought respect."
In the fall of 2001, Mitic qualified as a sniper and then as a master sniper, who could lead a team. Around the same time, the Canadian military began experiencing a rejuvenation in leadership, one that would bring the modern equipment that Mitic and his crew would be using in the farmer's field that morning six years later.
As Mitic and his men stepped silently toward the embankment that morning, they wore night-vision devices, advanced camouflage, and newer weapons. In the camp they had left at 3 a.m. was an array of new armored vehicles. Mitic had spent what he would later remember as his last relaxed evening there watching Family Guy in the back of an armored ambulance with a new acquaintance, a good-looking blonde combat nurse named Alannah Gilmore.
Sgt. Gilmore and camp seemed very far away, though, as Mitic watched his men approach the embankment. "I was already pissed off," Mitic remembers, "I thought, 'What's next—dropping the magazine out of my rifle?' We get to the incline, my point man checks it for traps, then he goes through, then my boss goes through, then my sniper. I make sure we have a good three meters between each of us, and I turn and take a step." Mitic pauses for a moment as he recalls how his new life started. "That's when I detonated the land mine."
One Consoling Thing
"For the first second or so, I didn't hear anything. I knew a noise had gone off, but it was so loud that it kind of turned off my eardrums. There was an orange flash. As I was flying through the air, I remember thinking, 'OK, what's this thing pissing me off now?' Then I hit the ground and the pain shot up from my legs. I was screaming, I had no idea where my rifle was, my night vision was below my nose, my ears and eyes were full of dirt." Mitic's team scrambled to get to him and find out what happened.
Under the IED booby trap that had blown Mitic's right foot off lay a mortar bomb. "The explosion from that secondary device damaged my other leg," Mitic explains. "Because of the incline it was on, if my point man had stepped on it, he would've been injured, my boss probably would have been dead, and the sniper and I probably would've been wounded. If my point man had stepped on it, I could've been the only guy not injured, with three of my friends on the ground. Play out any other scenario, and it would've been a lot worse—that's the one consoling thing for me."
As the others performed first aid and radioed for help, Mitic knew rescue wasn't coming any time soon, and neither were painkillers. "I just did my best to not think bad thoughts and not go into shock. A patrol several kilometers to the northwest had a medic, and it took over an hour for him to get to us. And when he showed up, he gave me morphine and told me that it takes another 20 minutes to kick in. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?"
"To get me out, they found a combat-engineering bulldozer and told them basically, 'Get to Mitic.' The commander of the bulldozer stood on top of his vehicle with his compass, took a bearing to where I was, pointed the bulldozer in that direction and said, 'Drive.' It drove through an abandoned village, fields, walls, in a straight line right to us."
Behind the bulldozer drove the armored ambulance, in which Gilmore, not knowing who her patient was, waited to do her work. When the ambulance arrived, nurse and patient recognized each other. Mitic recalls, "She said, 'Man, I didn't expect to see you here.' And I said, 'I didn't expect to be here.'"
Stages of Grief
After an initial surgery that removed both legs below the knees, Mitic was flown to Toronto. There, he began a recovery process that took him through the classic stages of loss and grief, starting with denial.
"Before I left, I said 'Don't worry guys, I'll get fixed up and we'll be back chasing the bad guys through the mountains.' And in my mind it was going to happen. What had I lost? Just a couple of feet—what do you need those for? In my mind, medical science had reached a point at which I could've come back to my job."
However, once the best painkillers had worn off, Mitic realized he wasn't going back. Apathy set in as he realized he'd never enter the special forces, and that his other career choices—police officer and firefighter—were closed to him.
"But I had mentally tried to prepare for something like this, and that helped me get through it," he says. "It's what I signed up for. If you join a combat unit and don't expect to get shot at or have your friends killed or maimed, you're living in a dream world."
Though he struggled, he tried to appear upbeat. When a member of the hospital charity asked if he wanted to run in a charity 5K, he agreed without thinking. "I had put on some weight from eating too much Dairy Queen to cheer myself up, but I thought, 'Five kilometers? I run that before breakfast and after supper.' It wasn't until after I agreed that I realized I hadn't run since I became an amputee. I decided then, 'Maybe it's time to buck up. Maybe it's time to get myself together.'"
And, slowly, Mitic's life began to evolve into its new form. He returned to his home base, Petawawa, where many of his friends were stationed. He decided to buy a dog, and the breeder hand-picked a Labrador retriever puppy for him and donated it to him. Charlie, the puppy, had to be taken out, walked, and fed, and Mitic says, "When I was thinking about him, I stopped thinking about me, and that helped me get through the 'poor-me' stage."
Charlie also helped bring about another major shift. In September 2007, Mitic bumped into Gilmore. The recently divorced sergeant mentioned that she was building a fence at home for her own dog and that he should bring Charlie over to play. Within a month, Mitic and Gilmore were dating. As the holiday season ramped up, they celebrated together, and just after the New Year, Gilmore became pregnant.
|Mitic, Gilmore, and their baby, Aylah, enjoy the end of a Christmas celebration.|
"There we were," Mitic says, "in a brand-new relationship and we're pregnant. But with me having gone through a near-death experience and her being a medic, we both thought, 'If we don't do this now, when are we going to do it?' We decided, whether we win, lose, or draw on our relationship, at least we'll have a child."
Their daughter, Aylah, was born in September 2008, and when Mitic talks about her, his voice takes on great tenderness. "I love getting up every day and seeing her. On the day she was born, she was sitting in my lap, and I thought, 'I can't wait to see how she turns out as a person.'"
As Mitic's responsibilities grew, so did his opportunities. Canadian Forces headquarters brought Mitic and his family to Ottawa to help affect policy for other wounded soldiers. Mitic now works primarily as an advocate for Canada's new Soldier On program, which helps injured servicemembers rehabilitate through sports and community. He has run in two half-marathon charity races, been approached about having a book written about his family, and volunteers as a tester for Tensegrity Prosthetics, Lafayette, Colorado. In November, he was awarded the Sacrifice Medal, a national honor given to those wounded or killed in action. "On Remembrance Day," he recalls, "we were invited to this massive gala, and the Prime Minister gets up in front of this crowd to make a speech, and half of it is about me and Alannah."
Mitic says now, "If I can't be the best sniper I can be, I can be the best advocate for the wounded—or any amputees—that I can be. When you're in the military, you learn to be a soldier by learning from the best soldiers that have gone before you. That's the kind of impact I want to have. And that's why I talk to the media. People see me speaking for soldiers or running for charity, and if a guy who gets his legs blown off can do charity runs to help the community, then anybody else can too. Or they can donate money or time—hospitals, animal shelters—it doesn't matter where. My point is that anyone can make things better."
Morgan Stanfield can be reached at