By Chyenne A. Adams, DFAS Corporate CommunicationsDecember 29, 2015
INDIANAPOLIS, (Dec. 29, 2015) -- A career of "service to country" entails a lot of different experiences, assignments and people. For two retired Soldiers, who continue to serve through federal service, that point was proven more than two-and-a-half decades later.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Lawson was walking out of his office in human resources when he saw a wounded warrior about to pass him in the hallway.
"This guy is pretty well known around DFAS [Defense Finance and Accounting Service] for his motivational talks and I'd been wanting to shake his hand for a long time and tell him how much I'd enjoyed a truly inspirational speech he'd given a few months earlier," Lawson said.
When he went to introduce himself to retired Army Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman, corporate communications, he didn't realize he'd met the man 26 years earlier - when he initially recruited him into the U.S. Army.
"I immediately recognized his name, even if I couldn't see his face," Mittman said. "This was the guy who'd put me in the Army 26 years ago. It immediately took me back to being a young Soldier… for a minute, I wasn't a wounded warrior."
A 19-year-old Mittman had graduated from Warren Central High School and completed about a year's worth of college classes when he walked into Lawson's recruiting office. Three weeks later he signed a contract, and on July 26, 1989, he shipped out to basic training.
"This young man had a swagger the instant he walked into my office," the former recruiter said.
"There was no convincing or influencing needed - he was his own man and knew he wanted to do something with his life."
Mittman served 16 years and deployed on four combat tours - one in Afghanistan and three in Iraq - before his life was forever changed in 2005.
He was serving as an adviser to an Iraqi battalion during his third deployment to Iraq on July 7, 2005, when he volunteered to be a driver on a convoy to Baghdad to pick up Iraqi soldiers. That's when his team drove into an all-out attack.
A lethal roadside bomb detonated and sent a projectile through his six-inch thick bullet-proof window. The vehicle went down into a canal, and Mittman was unconscious in chest-deep water.
His left eye was destroyed, his right eye had permanent scarring; his nose, lips and most of his teeth were gone; and his right arm was permanently damaged. He had 15 surgeries while unconscious in intensive care for more than a month. In 2008, Mittman moved back to Indiana permanently and had his 40th operation in 2010 before he called a halt to any more surgeries.
In October 2015, Mittman was on his way to lunch like any other day when he heard Lawson's voice and immediately recognized him as the man who helped set him on the path of his intense professional and personal journey.
"I was absolutely blown away," said Lawson, former top recruiter in his Indianapolis Recruiting Battalion. "In six years of recruiting, 20 years of service and all the years since, I've only knocked into three of my former recruits.
"I knew that some of the young people I'd recruited didn't make it home. Once I knew I was partly responsible for Jeff's journey, I needed to know how he really was," he said.
The two veterans sat down for lunch together to catch up on 41 years of combined service and Lawson said he was amazed at Mittman's current attitude toward life.
"Not only is he alive, he's thriving," Lawson said. "Here he is still being all that he can be, enlightening others, staying focused on family and others.
"I would've felt so guilty if I'd ever lied to Jeff, or any of the young people I recruited; but the Army's - and my own - core values didn't allow me to be dishonest with them about what they were getting into.
"I'm glad that in my heart Jeff has told me he wouldn't change a thing about what's happened - he even said he was glad the attack happened to him and not someone else. If I'm even in a small part responsible for putting such a remarkable man into uniform to serve in the Army, then I'm beyond proud," he said.
Mittman was inducted into the Indiana Veterans Hall of Fame during a Nov. 13 ceremony. The wounded warrior was surrounded by his Family, co-workers and his former recruiter.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," Lawson said. "This seals the deal for me of what a hero Jeff Mittman really was, and continues to be. It makes me proud to have served in the Army with this man, and to continue to serve our nation's heroes and their families today at DFAS alongside him."
Mittman currently serves as a member of the board of directors for Bosma Enterprises, Indiana's largest employer of people with vision loss. He also serves as chairman of the board of directors for Peace of Mind Brain Injury Services, a national non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of caregivers, children and loved ones of U.S. military personnel, veterans and civilians, who have sustained a brain injury or suffer from post-traumatic stress. He started work at DFAS in 2012 and in 2013 was named Disabled Employee of the Year for Defense Agencies. He continues to travel around the country delivering motivational speeches.