Wounded Warrior Diaries: ‘Failure is Not an Option’
By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2009 Believing faithfully that failure is not an option is a guiding philosophy for a former Army staff sergeant who, despite his injuries in combat, applies it to his life daily.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Joe Beimfohr used the example of other wounded warriors to re-adapt after losing his legs in an explosion in Iraq. Now he's helping others with disabilities. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Staff Sgt. Joe Beimfohr advanced in his military career, serving as a recruiter, then as section sergeant in charge of the health, welfare and training of soldiers. In January 2005, he was assigned to 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, at Fort Riley, Kan., and was deployed to Baqouba, Iraq. He was severely wounded on July 5 of that year when an improvised explosive device exploded on his patrol north of Baghdad.
Beimfohr’s 25-vehicle convoy had stopped to investigate a possible IED, and he led a team to inspect the site. The team found and cut a wire that led to the road, disabling the IED. But terrorists were watching, and detonated another IED.
Army Spc. Christopher W. Dickison was killed instantly. Beimfohr lost both his legs, fractured his pelvis and right hand, and suffered abdominal injuries. His team’s sacrifice in disabling the first IED directly contributed to saving the lives of other soldiers in the convoy.
Beimfohr was transported from Balad to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, where he spent nearly a year in recovery. He became involved in many sports-related activities, from mastering martial arts to excelling in hand-cycle marathons.
Beimfohr says he’s stubborn by birth, and that he believes his internal drive to persevere and overcome helped him to move past his injuries.
“When I woke up and I was alive, that is what changed everything -- that was the last thing I asked God,” he said. “When I woke up and realized I was alive, everything else didn’t matter, because I was alive.”
During recovery, Beimfohr was different from most of his fellow wounded warriors in that he had less family support to assist him through his recovery. He said he believes this propelled him to move forward and to not feel sorry for himself. In the absence of family support, he relied on the staff at Walter Reed, peer mentors and his comrades in arms, who all helped him recover.
“During that time when I was by myself and didn’t have anyone, it was probably the hardest times, and I just had faith that things would work out,” he said. “I had faith in myself, and I knew that I wasn’t going to call it quits.”
Beimfohr drew inspiration from the countless peer mentors, many of them amputees themselves, who came to sit by his bedside to share stories of their own recovery. Another role model he drew life lessons from was champion bicyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. He recalled reading Armstrong’s book and remembering a passage in which Armstrong recalls an e-mail he received from a cancer survivor welcoming him to the “club.”
Though he didn’t understanding the significance of the club at the time, Armstrong wrote, it served to shape his character later during his personal struggle with the disease, and through this, he truly understood what it meant.
Beimfohr said he identifies with Armstrong, because his injuries have welcomed him into a unique club as well.
“We are a unique club -- we are a unique band of brothers,” he said. “Our experiences are one-of-a-kind, and especially with this generation, with the media and the Internet, and a population that supports what we do. They want to learn more about us, and that brings us together.”
Wounded warriors have choices during their recovery, Beimfohr said. “You can sit in your hospital bed and complain about your injuries,” he said, “or you can accept what happened to you and move forward in a positive direction.”
Beimfohr said that wounded warriors forge their bond of brotherhood when they are first injured on the battlefield, lasting through the recovery and beyond. But, healing from those wounds takes some warriors longer than others, he acknowledged.
“Everyone comes around to that direction,” he said. “It may take some folks longer than others to accept their injuries and to accept what happened to them. For me, the big part was seeing other people who were at different stages than I was.”
Beimfohr said he drew inspiration from watching others in their recovery process when he went to physical therapy.
“I saw an achievable physical goal that I could attain if I worked hard enough and stayed positive enough,” he said. “I thought that I could be like that guy. And, I think that is what really helps people turn that corner in a positive direction,” he said.
Beimfohr said he doesn’t believe he is a hero, but rather servicemembers killed in battle are the true heroes.
“The heroes are the guys like Specialist Dickison -- the guys who didn’t come back who sacrificed their lives for their units, for their comrades, for their soldiers,” he said.
Beimfohr noted his unit’s efforts the day he was injured that resulted in locating three other hidden explosives. “I think Dickison’s sacrifice and my sacrifice are what led to 18 other guys being alive,” he said. “I went back to Fort Riley and got to see some of the soldiers who were near the explosive that day. One of my soldiers that I knew very well, his wife just had a baby. I think to myself, ‘Well, what would have happened if we didn’t find that device and disabled it? Then he wouldn’t be here.”
That, he said, makes his sacrifice worth something. “If I have to go through life without legs, it was worth it,” he said.
Beimfohr currently works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Offices, but during his off time he doesn’t seem to slow down. He is co-founder of the Able Warrior system that teaches self-defense to people with various disabilities – including many wounded warriors who have amputations of the legs and arms.
He also has acquired the passion of hand cycling. He has participated in the Marine Corps and New York City marathons, and is preparing for the Palm Beach, Fla., marathon in December.
Beimfohr is setting his sights high, looking at possibly qualifying for the U.S. Paralympics team for hand cycling. He acknowledged he might not be at the elite status yet, but added that he would like to attain that level and understands it won’t happen overnight.
“I think Paralympics is something that is always the top goal for everyone who starts to compete in the higher levels,” he said.
(This is the 14th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)