‘Without that bomb there would be no us’: How an Afghanistan blast brought a medic and sniper together
Joe O'Connor | September 4, 2015 2:41 PM ET | National Post: Article Link
It was the middle of the night when the call came. There had been an explosion. Master Cpl. Alannah Gilmore, a Canadian Army medic, grabbed her pistol, rifle and medical bag, jumped into an armoured vehicle and told herself what she always did in Afghanistan in 2007: assume the worst, but hope for the best.
But this was bad. A Canadian had stepped on a landmine on the outskirts of an Afghan village. One of his feet was blown off, the other shredded by shrapnel. He was covered in mud and debris and in pain, but alive, but Gilmore knew they needed to get him to an extraction point, get him on a helicopter and get him out of there. Fast.
They carried the wounded man by stretcher to an ambulance and, as the ramp at the back of the vehicle came down, a green light illuminated the soldier’s face. That is when Gilmore realized it was Master Cpl. Jody Mitic, her army sniper buddy. In the days before the blast they had sat in a mud hut in the middle of an Afghan nowhere, watching old episodes of the Family Guy, talking about life.
“I just thought — f — k — and I just felt heartbroken for Jody because you know, because you can see the depth of the injuries,” Gilmore says.
“When we got him close to where the chopper would land I put an IV in and I held his hand and I told him that he would be well taken care of, because what do you say? It was devastating.
“You see a guy the day before, and then you see him and you realize that now he is going home to Canada and everything has changed, and I can remember thinking: I hope his girlfriend and his family can handle this.”
Gilmore could handle it, although, at the time, she didn’t know she would need to. But then, neither did Mitic.
Mitic returned to Canada and became an advocate for wounded veterans and a minor celebrity as a contestant on Amazing Race Canada. He was elected to Ottawa city council in October 2014. His latest undertaking is a memoir, Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper.
But there is another story to tell here, about an unbreakable bond between soldiers, an emotional redoubt that has sustained Mitic and Gilmore’s relationship through his struggles to rediscover a sense of self-worth, post-Afghanistan, and through her continuing battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is the story of a bomb that blew two people together.
“Without that bomb there would be no us,” Gilmore said recently from the suburban Ottawa home she shares with Mitic and their two daughters, Aylah and Kierah, and two dogs, Charlie and Riley — plus a cat named Maxim and a tank of fish.
But on Jan. 11, 2007, a different narrative was at play as that chopper flew off with a shattered Canadian sniper inside. Gilmore went back to putting broken bodies back together again. Mitic went home to the girlfriend who was waiting for him there.
Their relationship didn’t last. How could it? Mitic was a bad-ass sniper, he was invincible. Now he was missing both feet and unable to get from his hospital bed to the bathroom.
“As a couple, we weren’t prepared to deal with what happened,” he says. “There were no hard feelings when it ended.”
Nine months after stepping on the mine he was single, living at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, and adjusting to life with prosthetics. He felt profoundly lonely, and lost.
“I had been a master of my craft — a master sniper,” Mitic says. “Now I was 30 years old and broken. I looked at myself as being deformed.”
Still, he felt compelled to track down all the army personnel who had helped save his life. He wanted to thank them.
Gilmore was on the list.
“It wasn’t, ‘Hey, where is that hot blond, the one I used to watch Family Guy with — I want to go on a date,’ ” he says. “It was, ‘Where is my comrade, my sister-in-arms, the one that was very instrumental in saving my life?’ ”
Then, one night, there she was, at a local bar. Coming through the darkness. Mitic reached out and grabbed Gilmore’s arm. She whirled around and raised her fist.
“I was ready to punch whoever it was,” she says, laughing. “But then I look down and it was Jody.”
He told her he had a new puppy, Charlie. She told him her dog’s name was Riley and invited him to drop by. So he did. And she kept inviting him back. Partly because she was a medic and didn’t want him to be alone, but mostly because they could talk for hours and understand — even in their silences — what the other had been through. What the war in Afghanistan was really like.
Gilmore liked how Mitic was smart and strong and funny and goofy. Mitic liked how she saw him for who he was, and not for what he was missing.
“By caring for me, in showing me that she cared, it gave me value again,” he says.
Says Gilmore, “I told Jody: screw everybody else. This is you. And it was good for me being with someone who needed caring for. It was our therapy — his physical, mine mental.”
In speaking about what he loves about his wife, Mitic relates a story. Four years ago they was driving home when they came across a multi-vehicle car crash. He saw it first. “You’re up,” he told Gilmore. “They need you.”
Gilmore sprang from their truck and sprinted to a minivan. A little girl, just five years old, was trapped inside. The army medic (now retired) used her fingers to keep the girl’s airway open, directing the rescue when firefighters arrived.
Mina Tran died on her way to hospital. But at least Gilmore had tried, says Mitic. “Alannah never said stop, and she never said this is a hopeless situation, or that this isn’t my place, and she stayed right there with her in that van. Alannah never quits.”
It isn’t easy. Gilmore is plagued by nightmares — terrorist attacks, car crashes, plane crashes, bombs and landmines and rocket strikes. She takes medication to keep the dreams at bay, but miss one pill and the horror film in her head starts rolling again.
“Jody and I have both had to figure out our way back into the normal world,” she says. “But we have done it together.”
On Jan. 11 of each year the family celebrates “Alive Day.” It is the day Mitic didn’t die in Afghanistan. It is the day his life, as it is, began. Aylah and Kierah understand the “bad guys” took their daddy’s legs. But they also know that their mommy was there to save him.
“Alive Day is a day of rebirth for Jody,” Gilmore says. “The girls and I have a tradition. We give him socks.”
Pink socks. Polka-dot socks, socks with rainbows, socks that an army sniper wears proudly on his titanium feet.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t stepped on that bomb,” Mitic says. “But I wonder if I am better off because of it, because if I didn’t step on that bomb I’d probably still be a sniper.
“I definitely would not be a husband, and I wouldn’t be a dad, and being a dad and a husband is what makes me a complete person.”