Injured, but not out
August 7, 2012
Personal courage can take many forms: sustaining injuries on the battlefield, combating mental wounds or helping Army families to make the right decisions -- even when no one is looking.
Sgt. Maj. Christopher Self, the plans sergeant major for 4th Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, at Fort Campbell, Ky., exemplifies personal courage. He is serving on active duty, despite having his right leg amputated after he was hit by enemy fire in Iraq. Since his injuries, Self has deployed twice to Iraq and remains Airborne-qualified.
"I was injured -- not wounded -- in the invasion of Iraq," Self said. "So I didn't get the opportunity to go to Afghanistan. But I've been to Iraq several times."
Self joined the Army Reserve 10 days after turning 17. Since he was a kid and played Army in the backyard, he always knew he wanted to serve.
"It took me 10 days to convince my mom to sign the papers," he said. "As soon as I was old enough to sign the active-duty contract, I joined right out of high school."
Self entered the Army as a 95B military policeman, and his first duty station was at Fort McClellan, Ala. In the fall of 1994, Self applied for and completed the training to become a Green Beret. Since then, he's had the opportunity to serve in most aspects of Special Forces.
"The best part of being Special Forces is our close interaction with the indigenous forces of whatever country we're in," Self said. "The regular Army, they go over there and work with them. But they aren't embedded. … You make friends and comrades in different forces and different countries all over the world."
Self was deployed to Iraq in 2005 when he was shot.
"On Dec. 28, 2005, I was injured during a prison escape at the camp that I was at while I was getting ready to go for a morning jog," Self said. "We ran into 16 prisoners and got into a little firefight. It was just dumb luck; we were all getting ready to do a quick morning workout, and we got into a prison break, got into a firefight. We stopped about six of them, six more surrendered, and the remaining two or four were rounded up throughout the day. I felt pretty good that we stopped it, but in the process, I got shot once in each leg."
Self was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for treatment. His wife, Dana, went there to be with him during his surgeries.
"Family is most important when you're wounded because they're the ones who suffer the most," Self said. "You're lying in a hospital, and you're thinking about what you have to do next to get better. Your wife and your kids still have a household to run; you're not there, and it's even worse than deploying."
His family provided him with the courage and commitment to keep moving forward in his recovery, he said.
"Life doesn't stop while you're healing," Self said. "The most important thing to me during the recovery process was the family holding together because of my wife."
Shrapnel severed his right leg at the sciatic nerve. Self said he couldn't feel the limb or move it. After two months of being in the hospital, Self said he started to look at his options. Initially, the doctors wanted him to use an ankle-foot orthosis, a type of brace, to help him. But Self said even with the braces, his foot would just fall.
"After several months of working with the neurologist and local doctors, they said, 'You're probably never going to run or jump again like you did before,'" Self said. "I had a prosthetist tell me he could get me running and jumping in 12 months. I had the leg removed in July 2006."
Self said he felt he should serve for the duration of his contract -- an additional five years after he was injured -- because he and his wife knew there were some things they could still do for the military and in Special Forces.
"I could've gotten out; I was at 20 (years)," Self said. "I had just got that Special Forces bonus. But I felt obligated since I signed a contract to stay to 25, and they paid me the money. My wife and I talked about it, and we had an obligation to serve the contract that we had. We weren't ready to get out."
Self returned to Iraq in 2007 as a Special Forces company first sergeant and again in 2010 as a Special Forces team command sergeant major. In addition, Self has completed 20 to 25 aircraft jumps since his leg was amputated. He said he's still able to motivate his Soldiers -- sometimes even more so than before his injury.
"I have a profile that says I can run at my own pace -- no PT run," Self said. "But I get out there and run and work out with them. … They see me out there doing what I do, and it motivates them."
Self said other amputees at Fort Campbell continue to serve and be examples to their Soldiers.
"Some days, it's almost like a parade," Self said. "At least three amputees who I know are at Fort Campbell out running, and I see them. It's motivating. I like to think that it shows guys who've been wounded since I was that there's an opportunity for them to stay if they choose to."
Continuing an active lifestyle is important to the recovery process, Self said. He competes regularly in triathlons and recently competed for the first time at the Warrior Games in cycling and track and field.
"The biggest thing about competition is it gives the guys a chance to feel normal again," Self said. "It really helps in healing the unseen wounds, the mental wounds, the [post traumatic stress] and the mental issues you have post-[traumatic brain injury]. It gives you a focus on that single event [in the competition]."
Self cycles to help him stay fit. He routinely logs more than 200 miles a week on his bike. He said cycling has helped him start to see himself as capable of competing with the best.
"When I'm on my bicycle, I'm as good as anyone out there," he said. "Mentally, I'm in a zone where I'm everybody's equal. When I get off, I'm reminded that I do have limitations. But it gets you out of the zone."
Self said he plans to retire in March after 27 years of service.