Leah Cuffe remembers the exact minute she received the call her solider, Master Cpl. Trauner, had been injured while deployed to Afghanistan. It was December 5, 2008 between 3:42 and 3:43 a.m. eastern standard time and since then Leah and Mike have been finding what they call their “new normal.”
Leah was no stranger to Mike being injured, weeks after meeting him in 2002; Mike called to tell her he was home from the field early because he broke his back in a jumping accident. Descending from the sky, Mike hit a pressure crack when he landed on Round Lake causing three vertebras to fractures in his back.
“I didn’t realize the extent of my injury at the time,” explained Mike, who continued participating in the exercise. However, he notes his back began to bother him a few hours later, at which point he went to see the medics.
A proud infanteer with the Royal Canadian Regiment, Mike was a sports enthusiast. He enjoyed biking, swimming and taking in all that military life had to offer. He described himself as, “a hard charging soldier.” But in mere seconds Mike’s life changed when he lost both of his legs, his left leg above the knee and his right leg below his knee, plus he broke 25 bones in his left hand along with three bones in his left arm.
“I died twice,” Mike simply states. He recalls the smell of smoke and ammunition, the screaming and hearing the call requesting an air evacuation, for two soldiers, one injured with shrapnel, which happened to be Mike’s driver, and one an amputee. “I didn’t realize I was the amputee,” admits Mike.
At the time November Company was on foot patrol in Afghanistan, with Mike at the tail end carrying explosives when an IED, comprised of two bombs was set off remotely. It consisted of two bombs strapped together. It is believed they waited for Mike, who may have stood out due to his height or the fact he was carrying the ammo. The Taliban thought the IED explosion would detonate the ammunition and kill more than one soldier. But they were wrong.
Mike recalls he was “carrying four mortar bombs 60 mils each on my back. If they had gone off I would have been dust.”
The first bomb threw the large man six metres into the air; the second bomb was detonated mere point seconds later. Mike landed in the one metre deep crater created by the IEDs. “The second bomb was set off when Mike was in the air, that is what saved him,” explains Leah. “When everything sprayed he was out of the way.”
Between the incident, when Mike was blown up and arriving at Kandahar Air Force Base (KAF) Mike bled out twice. At the base an emergency blood clinic was called, asking people to give blood in hopes of saving the young Master Corporal’s life. “Whoever was there (in KAF) and donating their blood, they were trying to fix him,” notes Leah. Fourteen bags of blood flowed through Mike’s veins, but he still needed more.
While doctors worked to save Mike, another IED was set off a few hours later killing three Canadian soldiers. Warrant Officer Robert Wilson, Corporal Mark Robert McLaren and Private Demetrios Diplaros, members of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment all lost their lives that fateful Saturday.
Once Mike was stabilized at KAF he was moved to an American Air Force hospital in Germany, a place Leah describes as “amazing.” Travelling on a plane for the first time Leah arrived in Germany 33 hours after receiving the initial call.
She recounts receiving the phone call, “at the time I didn’t believe them,” but when she arrived at the hospital in Germany and there were 20 people waiting for her, the reality of what the situation was hit her. Mike’s parents eventually arrived two days after Leah. Mike notes his condition was incredibly hard on his mom.
Seven days after arriving in Germany the family headed home on December 12 and once in Canada Mike was admitted to the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
Three months in to Mike’s recovery Mike’s mom suffered a massive stroke and passed away. While preparing to attend his mom’s funeral on March 20, 2009 Leah learned that two of Mike’s comrades had been killed by an IED. They were Mike’s good friend and former driver Cpl. Tyler Crooks and Mike’s comrade Master Cpl. Scott Francis Vernelli. Mike notes that he and Master Cpl. Vernelli shared somewhat the same fate. “I had his job before he had mine, we actually switched positions and then switched again. Both of us ended up being blown up.”
Over the next 18 months Mike endured16 operations, spending 13 months in rehabilitation therapy. He proudly admits he “broke all the records there.” Sixty-nine days after Mike lost his legs he was up on new feet. During his time in rehab he was advised, at best he would be able to walk five metres, with a cane, but with his tenacity, discipline and drive Mike set his mind to be able to walk again. On September 21, 2009 he walked the five-kilometre route at the Canada Army Run. With Leah pushing a wheelchair, in case he needed a break, and his rehab team by his side, Mike walked the whole distance. Not only did he mark a milestone in his recovery he also inspired Ottawa artist Bruce Stewart to create the Road Walkers paintings, a series of paintings depicting Canadian wounded personnel. The artist donated his paintings Road Walkers II, to the Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU) in Petawawa. Road Walkers was purchased by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Before Mike’s deployment to Afghanistan the couple, along with their three dogs, had moved into their brand new home in Petawawa, a split entrance bungalow. Having spent a limited time in the house before his deployment, Mike returned to the house January 2010. The couple’s dogs were ecstatic to see their old friend. “Dogs are loyal, they just accept you for who you are,” notes Mike, adding, “they were really excited to see me.”
The couple soon realized their home wasn’t a practical place to accommodate Mike. Even after renovating the house, Mike was left stranded downstairs due to the challenge of stairs. With the help from their friends, groups and the CF the couple built their “forever home” in Laurentian Valley in 2011. With lots of planning, designing and negotiating the couple broke ground June 8, but the day was hampered by the death of Casey their eight-year-old German shepherd.
The couple with their two dogs, officially move into the house on December 15, but again misfortune struck the couple when they lost Brody their eight year old Chocolate lab, who fell ill and passed away on January 16. Nine days later they lost Byson, their 11-year-old husky-shepherd cross due to heart failure.
Surviving the loss of their three beloved furry family members the couple sought comfort in turning their new house in to a home. Mike describes the process of building it as, “a lot of people coming together to help. It was a long difficult process, but in the end it all worked out.”
The CF covered the costs associated with Mike’s quality of life, like durable floors for the wheel chair and wider doorframes. The couple also received money through two fundraising events, one at the Petawawa Golf Club and the other a 40th wedding anniversary. They also experienced the generosity of Jim Curack and the organization Reno’s For Heroes who built the couple’s 1400 square foot deck. “He asked what do you want, what do you need?” explains Mike. Mike and Leah needed a deck that included a ramp so Mike could exit the house in the event of an emergency.
The couple also had a 300-gallon salt-water wheelchair accessible aquarium set up for Mike. Since moving into the house Mike has taken up fishkeeping as a hobby. “It is kind of like his therapy,” explains Leah.
While Mike described himself as someone who didn’t like to ask for help, he has learned to ask over the last few years. Simple tasks like getting dressed that used to take him mere minutes now take 30 minutes up to an hour to two hours, depending on the outfit. Getting ready for work in his combats takes him over an hour and if he needs to dress in his Distinctive Environment Uniform (DEU) Mike needs to allot two hours.
Although the prosthetics have allowed Mike a certain freedom, they can also be a restriction. At a recent fitting Mike ended up with a small mark on his leg, which grew into a “really bad infection,” explains Leah. “He didn’t walk for 14 weeks. He actually spent more time in his wheelchair with this infection than he did when he was first injured.” Other challenges Mike faces with his prosthetics include the weather and ignorant people. He admits it is difficult to get around with prosthetics during the winter months. “Prosthetics and winter weather are really dangerous,” notes Mike. While spring weather is a bit better, the weather can be unpredictable and during the summer months the humidity causes Mike to sweat, making it uncomfortable to wear his prosthetics. Regarding ignorant people Leah describes a scene in a local department store where a customer pushed her way past Mike, almost knocking him over. “I just lost it,” she recounts.
Even with certain obstacles to overcome the couple doesn’t spend time lamenting about their fate, “We are way past the Oh My God,” explains Leah, adding, “we are just carrying on.”
Since his injury Mike has received numerous awards including the Afghanistan Medal, the Sacrifice Medal given to him for loss of life or limb 2009, the Military Medal Of Valour (MMV) 2010, The Top Canada Award 2011, he was nominated for the Cambrian College Premier’s Award, awarded The Cambrian College Alumni Award 2012, awarded The Spirit Of Newfoundland Targa Award & Medallion 2011. Currently he is nominated for CTV’s top 50 Most Amazing People of 2011-2012 and he received The Guardian Angel Pin Award, which is usually issued to healthcare providers who are nominated by patients. In Mike’s case fellow patients and medical staff nominated him for his support and acknowledgment of others and most importantly helping fellow patients in their personal recovery while Mike was still recovering himself explains Leah.
He has also participated in the 2010 Winter Paralympics opening ceremonies and had the opportunity to walk with the torch when it crossed the country before the 2010 Olympics. He has also participated in the Targa, a 2,200 kilometre driving course in Newfoundland with good friend and Cpl. Andrew Knigh
While Leah has recently returned to the work force, picking up where she left off at her job before Mike’s injury, Mike worries about his job retention. He notes, “You don’t know what the military is thinking.”
Having endured some ups and downs when it comes to navigating through policies and procedures, both are giving back by assisting their peers. Recently Leah created the Facebook page The CF’s Silent Ranks (Peer Support Group) for spouses and family members of CF ill and injured. She explains it is a place where they can talk about the challenges they face daily regarding the policies and procedures. And while Leah is assisting families, Mike is planning on entering the arena of politics with the aim of helping fellow Canadians.
This December the couple will celebrate Mike’s 4th Alive Day, marking four years since their lives drastically changed. Although it may sound strange notes Leah, Mike’s injury was the easy part. Since he lost his legs the couple has had to “relearn” where they can go, what restaurants are accessible, where elevators are at business offices and what hotels and stores are accessible. “You have to learn everything all over again,” admits Leah. “Nothing is spontaneous anymore.”
“We now have to think before we do,” adds Mike. As they have done the past three years, this Remembrance Day the couple will be travelling around Ontario attending events in Sudbury, Haliburton and Toronto during the week leading up to Remembrance Day. “We both take it off and attend Remembrance Day events,” notes Mike, who has also met Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall when they were visiting Canada in 2009.
In their spare time Mike and Leah enjoy spending time giving back to True Patriot Love, Soldier On, the Canadian Torch Foundation, Reno’s For Heroes, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) the Heart and Stroke Association, Hope and Heroes (Ottawa Hospital Foundation), and anything associated with the Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre, the organizations that have been there for them over the last four years and assisting them as they learn their new normal in their forever home.
Cyndi Mills is the host of Ottawa Valley Connection, publisher CMF Mag, mom of four, military spouse of 20 years and owned by six furry friends and fish.