Staying Power: Major Returns to Eradicate Explosives that Nearly Killed Him
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 24, 2008 It's just after 5 on a weekday evening at Air Force Maj. Matthew Conlan's home in a leafy Northern Virginia subdivision. Conlan's son, Cameron, is home from college for the summer and playing with their dog in the three-story townhouse. Conlan's wife, Becky, just got home from work and is on the phone with a utility company.
Air Force Maj. Matthew Conlan walks through the cavernous tunnel system below his office in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Va. Conlan was injured in Afghanistan in 2005 and returned to active duty to work at the Air Force's counter-improvised explosive device office. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The dog hears the familiar "click" as the electronic garage door opens and, like clockwork, he starts barking like crazy. The long-time family pet knows Conlan is home, and that it's almost time for their evening walk.
The Conlans' life, for the most part, appears to be normal. But like some 440 other airmen seriously wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Conlan and his family have struggled for normalcy. While on the surface, their life now looks like a slice of Americana, underneath the layers of Conlan's uniform, and behind the smiles on the faces of his family, lie the scars and memories of a bomb blast three years ago that nearly tore them apart.
Conlan grew up an Air Force "brat" immersed in the military. He was born in an Air Force hospital in France. He graduated from high school in Alaska. His father retired from the Air Force and his mother, too, spent some time in the service. His two brothers became Marines. So it was natural for him to sign up for the Air Force in 1989 after attending Air Force ROTC at Arizona State University, even though his father was against the idea.
"He said, 'I served 20 years on active-duty so you wouldn't have to,'" Conlan recalls. "I said 'That's not true, Dad. You served 20 years so I would have the option to choose what I do with my life. And I choose to serve.'"
Conlan joined as an acquisitions officer and later transferred to civil engineering. He worked his way through the ranks in various assignments, and in 2005 was serving as the deputy airbase squadron commander at the Royal Air Force Croughton in Oxfordshire, England, when a deployment opportunity opened with the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron heading to Afghanistan.
Conlan volunteered. His wife, Becky, prior military herself, was supportive of his deployment. "She knows that's why I wear the uniform," Conlan said.
Staying With His Troops
On June 17, 2005, just outside of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Conlan was out with an explosive ordnance team collecting and destroying some of the thousands of unused munitions scattered across the country's landscape. Many artillery shells, landmines, grenades and other explosives remain from the country's near decade-long war with Russia that ended almost 20 years ago. The Taliban and other extremist groups often arm the munitions with homemade triggering devices and propellants to use in attacks against coalition forces.
Conlan's job as the expeditionary civil engineer squadron commander didn't require him to be "outside the wire" with the ordnance troops. His main job was to keep the old, 10,000-foot Soviet-built airstrip open.
Built in 1976 primarily as a landing strip for small fighters, the United States and other NATO forces were landing huge cargo planes there, as many as 50 flights per day.
"I loved it. It was one of those assignments where you actually see the results of your efforts," Conlan said. "Every time an aircraft landed it was because we were keeping that runway adequately maintained. It was literally falling apart. It was taking a lot of heavy use and it was just crumbling."
Not the kind of guy to give orders from behind a desk, Conlan, the only officer in the squadron of about 80, went out that day with a group of about 30 troops, ordnance experts and others, to help haul away the munitions. "Whatever my guys were doing, I'd be out there with them," he said.
'What the Hell Happened?'
"All this stuff was just lying around all over the place," he said of the munitions scattered about.
Conlan noticed an artillery shell mostly buried in the ground, nose first. One of the ordnance crew, Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Ramakka, dug around the shell to see if had been expended, or if it needed to be destroyed.
Ramakka and Conlan stood next to the shell talking for a few minutes. When they stepped away, a bomb exploded.
"I did not hear the explosion. It was all a visual sensation like somebody was flipping the lights off and on really fast," Conlan said. "I was falling, and as I was falling I was thinking, 'What the hell is going on?' And then I'm lying on the ground on my back and I'm thinking 'What the hell happened?'"
What Conlan didn't know at the time was that Ramakka had been standing upon a buried anti-personnel mine. It had activated when he stepped onto it. When he stepped off, it exploded. Officials later said that the mine was likely placed there by the Taliban because they knew the troops regularly collected the old munitions and that the artillery shell would attract the ordnance team's attention. In other words, it was a booby trap.
After the blast, Conlan lay in the dust, mud and blood trying to sort out what just happened.
"It was a very surreal experience," Conlan said. His vision was clear. He looked over at Ramakka.
"I looked and there's this leg waving around with no foot, and I'm like 'Oh crap.' Of course I used stronger language at the time," Conlan said.
Between them, there was a smoking hole in the ground.
Still stunned and not yet feeling any pain, Conlan said he then went into "self-assessment mode." His right leg was bent backwards, and there was hole in it with blood and bone oozing out. He couldn't straighten his left leg, so he ripped open a tear in his pants over his left thigh.
"There's this giant hole in there big enough to stick my fist in," Conlan said. "I remember sticking my fingers in there to see if there was blood spraying out. I was thinking that there's an artery there and I couldn't get a good look at what was going on."
By this time, members of the group began gathering around, offering up emergency medical treatment mixed with words of encouragement.
His crew gave him fluids and blood intravenously, snapped a field tourniquet on his right leg to keep him from bleeding to death, and called for a medical evacuation. And then the pain hit - pain so bad that Conlan couldn't describe it.
"You do go through all of those emotions," Conlan said. "'I'm going to die. I'm never going to see my wife and kid again.'"
He said he was angry at one point, "cursing a blue streak." This was not the way he wanted to leave Bagram Airfield. But, Conlan said, he knew his mission there was done.
At times, he also was talking and joking with Ramakka. "Anything to take your mind off of what was going on," Conlan said.
Surgery at Bagram returned blood flow to the right leg, cleaned the wounds and stabilized him. Conlan then had to break the news to his wife. He started the phone conversation by beating around the bush, talking about how the day started and the mission, but then reluctantly told her that he and Ramakka had been injured by the blast.
Conlan told her he'd probably lose the right leg because blood flow had been cut off for more than an hour. Becky asked to speak to a doctor. Her only concern was that Conlan come home alive.
"She's like 'I don't care about the leg. We can get him a new leg. I just want to make sure he's not going to die,'" Conlan said.
Conlan met his wife and son in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. A few days later they flew to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Conlan would spend the next year recovering at Wilford Hall Medical Center, the Air Force's largest medical facility.
Conlan had a grapefruit-size chunk of muscle and bone blown out of his right leg, just below the knee, and a fist-size hole out of his left thigh. The artery was exposed there, but not damaged. There were other holes in his legs, one the size of a soda can and another the size of a silver dollar. He had burns on both legs, and blast damage on his hands, arms and face.
Doctors were not promising they could save his right leg, but they laid out an aggressive treatment plan to try.
It took 10 surgeries on his legs to get Conlan upright again. He had lost a lot of muscle on his right calf and inside left thigh. On his right leg, doctors rotated part of his calf muscles upward to make up for what was lost. Skin grafts and bone grafts were needed on both legs.
For months, Conlan had to wear an external bridging fixture that attached to his thigh bone and screwed into his shin to immobilize his right leg.
Becky's background in the military and experience in operating and emergency rooms proved useful as she helped with Conlan's care. "She could talk to them and understand everything that was going on," Conlan said.
Every day, Becky changed intravenous fluid bags, gave Conlan injections and changed bandages. Conlan's son took part in his care, too. Cameron would clean the area around the screws inserted into his father's leg.
Getting Back on His Feet
The Air Force changed Conlan's duty assignment to Lackland and shipped the family's belongings there. The family stayed in a Fisher House on the base, which Becky described as a "God-send," for a little more than a month and were later given on-base housing.
It was September 2005 before Conlan could start putting weight on his leg. By the middle of that month, he walked across the living room without help. Every day after, he made a little more progress in rehab.
"Once I put the crutch up, I pretty much didn't use it any more," he said.
At the start, Conlan couldn't lift his right foot up to walk. Because the nerves were so damaged, he probably would never be able to lift it, the doctors told him. Despite that negative prognosis, Conlan said he now has some function back.
"They tell me I shouldn't be able to do what I'm doing, but I'll take what I can get. I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone," Conlan said.
In November 2005, Conlan went back to work. A friend at Lackland's security forces center offered him a job. Nothing too demanding, he said. He still had rehab and numerous medical appointments. He went to work about 7:30 a.m. and went home at lunch time.
"That was a big deal for me. It was one more step towards normal -- getting back in the game," Conlan said. "It was just getting out of the house, and going somewhere and sitting at a desk and saying 'Okay, I'm at least back part time. I'm contributing to the mission.'"
In December 2005, doctors loosened the struts on the frame supporting his leg. About a month later, they removed the frame.
In May 2006, Conlan took a different job at nearby Randolph Air Force Base. It was in the civil engineer directorate and was "nearly full-time," Conlan said. Technically,
Conlan was assigned to the medical wing, and was working more or less as a volunteer. But he was an Air Force engineer and his fellow engineers thought it would be better if he was around. They didn't want him falling through the cracks, Conlan said.
It was about that time that Conlan started having trouble sleeping. When he did sleep he had bad dreams. During the day Conlan sometimes suffered from what he called "unfocused anger."
"I would go from going perfectly happy to completely pissed off for no reason. I couldn't tell you why I was mad," Conlan said.
Working through his recovery was not easy for anyone in the family, and his mood swings made it considerably less easy.
One day, Conlan came home to find Becky holding a piece of paper. "She said 'These are the symptoms of [post traumatic stress disorder] and you pretty much have all of them. And I can't help you with this. So you either go get help or I'm going to have to leave because I can't do this,'" Conlan said. "That caught my attention."
Conlan walked into Wilford Hall's psychiatric services and asked for care. They gave him medicine for his sleeping problems, and counseling for his PTSD.
Returning to Service
By late August 2006, Conlan was on self-directed physical therapy. He still had a host of other related medical appointments. But the time had come for his physical evaluation board. Would he be allowed to finish his career in the Air Force? At that point, Conlan lacked only a few years from reaching the 20-year goal he set for himself when he joined.
"It was like a mental thing with me. I wanted to finish what I started. I was that close," Conlan said. He wrote a letter to the Air Force board, asking that they allow him to stay on active duty. The Air Force, since the war began, has tried to be generous in its allowances to keep wounded servicemembers who want to stay in the service on active-duty. Remarkably, Conlan's board results came back that October with no duty limitation.
The reason, Conlan said, was that he had worked up to walking three miles. It hurts, he said, but he can do it.
"Their rationale was if I can walk that far, I could run 100 yards in an emergency," Conlan said. "They're probably right. If somebody was shooting at me I could probably run 100 yards. It wouldn't be pretty. It wouldn't be fast, but I could probably do it."
In September 2006, Air Force officials began setting up an office in Washington, D.C., to counter improvised explosive devices, otherwise known as roadside bombs. They called Conlan and said they needed a civil engineer and asked if he would be interested.
It was a desk job, at Air Force headquarters. But Conlan knew his days in the field were over. And he would be helping the Air Force buy the right products to combat the radio-controlled bombs that the enemy is using against U.S. forces.
After talking it over with Becky, Conlan accepted. He wanted to keep others from having to endure what he had.
Conlan still has pieces of the Afghanistan landscape embedded in his nose, face and ears. Small fragments of sand and rock continue to work themselves out of his skin. He has been called a "medical marvel." Doctors never thought he would keep his leg. They never thought he would move his foot. But, today, Conlan can lift his foot, and his leg is still there.
He can't run because his knee won't take it. Errant bone is growing in his leg -- a phenomenon common in blast victims in this war -- and grating against his bones, and osteoarthritis has set in. Eventually, Conlan will have to have his knee replaced. His foot needs realignment, but doctors can't fix that until they replace the knee.
Conlan weaves sometimes when he walks, and when he gets tired, his limp is more pronounced. He is in pain every day.
Still, he hops on his Yamaha Majesty 400 cc scooter and rides about 35 miles to work everyday. He used to ride a motorcycle, but since the blast, Becky has vetoed anything that requires a foot break. His Yamaha has all hand controls. He's put 19,000 miles on the bike since his assignment here.
In the afternoons, Conlan escapes from his desk and for physical therapy walks a couple of miles through the cavernous tunnel system of shops and restaurants below his office in the Crystal City area of Arlington, Va. He stretches and does leg lifts and other exercises in the stairwell at work. At night, he walks his dog.
"I was sitting there one day and I told my wife, 'Man, I've got ugly legs now.' And she's like 'Yeah, but they are your legs,'" Conlan said. "I've got wicked-cool scars."
Conlan also is active in speaking to military groups and commanders about PTSD and the signs to watch for. He hopes speaking out will help break the stigma attached with asking for help.
"I've got nothing to lose," Conlan said. "I'm very vocal about talking about it because it is a problem."
Conlan also still keeps in touch with Ramakka, who also is back on active-duty wearing a prosthetic leg and teaching at the Air Force's explosive ordnance disposal preliminary course at Lackland.
To this day, Conlan said he regrets none of his choices - his choice to serve, to deploy, to go out with the troops that day and his choice to remain on active duty. He will retire next May with his 20 years of service.
"We are returning people to duty, and life does go on and your career doesn't necessarily end," Conlan said. "Yeah, I'm going to have physical limitations for the rest of my life, but I firmly believe that my decision to go out that day was the right decision. I absolutely belonged out there with my guys.
"That's the way I choose to lead," he said.
(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles about seriously wounded servicemembers returning to active duty).