Wounded Marine Shares Story of Love and Healing
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Sept. 6, 2011 On a beautiful late April afternoon, Marcela Kazimir watched tearfully as her wounded husband was carried onto a massive C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, for the flight to the United States.
Marine Cpl. Miroslav “Mike” Kazimir and his wife Marcela credit a strong military medical system and a devotion to each other with helping them heal after Kazimir was severely wounded in Afghanistan. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Marine Cpl. Miroslav “Mike” Kazimir, her husband of just 13 months, was in bad shape, suffering severe leg and spinal injuries, as well as a brain injury.
Days earlier, he had been on a patrol with his 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines near Marjah, Afghanistan. As a machine gunner, Kazimir was in the turret of the lead mine resistant, ambush-protected vehicle when it ran over an improvised explosive device.
The blast sent him, as well as the entire turret and gun assembly, flying into a field.
The explosion, which killed two of Kazimir’s best friends and wounded two other Marines in the vehicle, started Kazimir on a new path to rebuild his body and his life.
Looking back, Kazimir calls his very survival a testament to the military medical network that begins with life-saving combat medicine.
“It’s amazing that I wasn’t killed,” he said. “I guess I got lucky. I honestly don’t know how I survived that blast.”
Kazimir credited his fellow Marines with immediately jumping in to apply their pre-deployment training in battlefield casualty care.
“They knew exactly what to do, and that saved my life,” he said.
A British military helicopter quickly swooped in to whisk Kazimir off to advanced-level care. He had lost so much blood, he said, that he received transfusions from 10 different people before ever leaving Afghanistan.
The following day, Air Force aeromedical evacuation crews flew Kazimir to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then six days later, to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Two New Worlds
Marcela Kazimir knew something was wrong when her phone rang at five minutes before midnight the day before Easter. A Czech citizen who had met her future husband at his uncle’s birthday party in New York, Marcela was living with her family in the Czech Republic during his deployment.
She barely remembers the notification official’s words as he delivered the news that Kazimir had been wounded.
“All I could think to ask was, ‘Is he alive? And is he going to survive?’” she said. “My sister held me as I cried. It was a nightmare.”
Once she felt calm enough to talk, she called the notification officer back to get more information. Within hours, Marcela’s cousin and his fiancé drove her to Germany.
Standing at the gate to Landstuhl hospital on Easter Sunday, Marcela recognized she was entering two new worlds: the military medical system and the military community.
She remembered the first time she laid eyes on Kazimir, standing handsomely at his uncle’s birthday party in New York wearing his Marine Corps uniform. The chemistry had been immediate, with both recognizing “something magical between us,” Marcela said.
“We knew we would be together forever, no matter what,” she said.
Kazimir had arrived in the United States from his native Slovakia in 1999, and remembers vividly how much the 9/11 terror attacks affected him. “I was so mad, I realized I had to do something,” he said.
But every military recruiter Kazimir visited returned him away because he had no U.S. Green Card. When he finally was able to get one, he returned, joining the Marine Corps in 2007. “I wanted to be with the best,” he said.
Kazimir was preparing for his first deployment, to Ramadi, Iraq, when he met his future wife. He traveled to New Jersey, where she was living at the time, to say goodbye before deploying in January 2009.
They continued their relationship via email and Skype, and both flew to Florida to be together during his two-week rest and recuperation leave that summer. Kazimir surprised Marcela with a marriage proposal. Five months after he redeployed, the Kazimirs married on March 3, 2010.
Preparing for his second deployment, to Afghanistan, Kazimir helped prepare his new wife for what seemed at the time like the unthinkable. As part of that talk, he explained how, if wounded, he would likely be transported to Germany, then on to a U.S. military hospital.
“He told me I had to be prepared for anything,” Marcela said.
Marcela’s reception when she arrived at Landstuhl to await her husband’s arrival from Afghanistan gave her the solace she desperately needed.
Her parents soon arrived from the Czech Republic, and her in-laws from Slovakia to be at her side. But as Kazimir underwent his first critical surgeries, the military community embraced her as well.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ben Coleman and Vivian Wilson, manager of the Fisher House, were among those who helped tend to her every need.
“I can’t find the words to describe all everyone did for me,” Marcela said, from providing lodging to information about Kazimir’s condition and comforting reassurance that he was in good hands.
“From the little things to the big things, they were there for me,” she said.
Advanced, Long-term Care
Six days later, Marcela, wearing a bright black-and-red Marine Corps shirt, accompanied Kazimir during his aeromedical evacuation flight to Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Wilson, Coleman and Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Spencer Forbes, a Marine liaison, comforted Marcela as she watched her husband being carried aboard the C-17 at Ramstein.
Seeing so many wounded Marines, and the severity of their wounds, “sucks sometimes,” Forbes admitted. But it’s a job he volunteered for, returning to the Corps after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus.
“We get to take care of our Marines and their families, and that’s a pretty fulfilling job,” he said. “I’d call it one of those pinnacles.”
Of the 24 patients on the flight, Kazimir was among seven in critical condition that required constant monitoring by a critical care air transport team.
Armed with high-tech equipment that essentially turned the aircraft into a flying intensive-care unit, they checked Kazimir’s vital signs throughout the eight-hour flight, administering fluids and medication to keep him comfortable.
Marcela also kept vigil, hovering over her husband and whispering reassurance.
Once at Andrews, an ambulance backed up to the aircraft and hurried Kazimir to the National Naval Medical Center.
Kazimir’s wounds were extensive. The blast had injured his upper spinal column, broken his femur, shattered bone in both tibias, damaged both heels and ankles and inflected a brain injury. With the wounds came regular bouts of “crazy pain,” he said.
Amputation would have been a quicker and ultimately, less painful option for Kazimir. But despite hearing stories of comrades bounding around the hallways of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in their new prostheses, he was committed to saving his legs.
The Bethesda medical team did all it could to honor Kazimir’s wish during four months of intensive medical care that included more surgeries than either he or Marcela can now remember.
“I can’t even count,” he said. “It started with three surgeries a week for the first two months. Then it went to two a week.”
Marcela marveled at the care her husband received throughout the process. “It’s amazing that they can do something like this,” she said, looking at his legs, still caged in metal braces and suspended from above his bed.
Kazimir credits the staff’s expertise, encouragement and occasional prodding with helping him progress. “Sometimes you need an extra push,” he said.
But just as important to his healing, he said, was his wife’s constant presence at his bedside.
Living at the Navy Lodge on the hospital grounds because the six Fisher Houses were full, Marcella spent almost every waking moment with Kazimir. Declining invitations to hospital-sponsored activities designed to give families of inpatients a respite, she focused exclusively on her husband and his healing.
“There will be time for all those things later,” she said. “Right now, this is where I feel I need to be. And this is where I want to be.”
“Psychologically, [her presence] helped me a lot,” Kazimir said. “If I didn’t have her here, I don’t know how well I would have done. It’s been really important to my healing.”
As the medical staff at Bethesda tended to Kazimir’s wounds, they and the Marine Corps liaisons tended to Marcela’s emotional needs, too.
“They became like family, nice and friendly,” she said. “They’d sit and talk with me...Some of the nurses became my friends.”
Looking to the Future
Last week, the Kazimirs said goodbye to the Bethesda staff that had cared for them for four months to begin the next step toward recuperation at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va.
There, Kazimir will begin intensive physical therapy, returning to Bethesda for additional surgeries, as required.
His first big goal, he said, is to raise from his hospital bed and stand on the legs that have undergone countless surgeries.
“I’m going to focus on healing, healing, healing so I can stand, so I can walk, so I can do whatever I did before -- and without pain,” he said.
Kazimir never questions that he will walk again. “I tell people, don’t feel sorry for me, because I am going to walk,” he said.
He has clung to that optimism from the moment he first awoke from semi-consciousness in Bethesda and began coming to grips with his plight. “There have been ups and downs, but 95 percent of the time, he keeps his spirits up,” Marcela said.
At this point, Kazimir said it’s too soon to know what’s ahead for him, and whether he’ll be able to remain in the Marine Corps. He knows it’s almost certain he won’t be a machine-gunner, although Marcela encourages him with a reminder that he’d make a great a machine-gun trainer.
Kazimir ponders the possibly of other missions within the Corps, or, failing that, as he returns to civilian life.
For now, he said, he’s concentrating on taking one step at a time as he works toward restoring his body and his dreams.
“There’s no way I’m going to let some freaking IED take that away,” he said.
It’s the same advice Kazimir said he has to offer any other wounded warrior -- or anyone whose life is suddenly turned upside down with a debilitating injury.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Picture your goal in the long run and focus on what you’ve got to do. But whatever happens, never give up.”